One of Full Frame’s most distinguished veterans returned this year with a film that already screened at Sundance and was sure to be heard from in the run-up to awards season. No, it’s never too early to talk about awards season.
Oscar-winner Alex Gibney returns to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room territory to analyze the life and fall of Jack Abramoff in just the kind of high-polished, high-definition documentary that finds broad distribution (thank you, Magnolia) and popularity across the country. The film absolutely merits Oscar consideration: In Gibney’s capable hands, Abramoff’s rise from collegiate conservative activist to “The King of K Street,” followed by the crushing revelations by The Washington Post of his myriad systemic abuses, offers a provocative glimpse at capitalism’s harsh marriage to ego in post-Reagan politics. Politics that, the film convincingly argues, were shaped to a significant extent by Abramoff himself.
In well-researched footage of Abramoff at his sticky work, along with a vibrant array of talking heads from within and outside the über-lobbyist’s moneymaking machine, the film finds the reasons for one man’s misdeeds in a cultural inability to take on political or fiscal mismanagement, as well as a cinematic temperament run amok (little-known fact: Abramoff was a movie producer before he was a lobbyist). The most profound argument in the film is forwarded by The Wrecking Crew author Thomas Frank: that Abramoff’s wildly successful role in advancing the interests of Mariana Island garment magnates during the Reagan years, which to Republicans was a microcosm view of the virtues of the free market but in reality proved government deregulation to be a genuine plague on society, led to deregulations of the banks and the current collapse of the financial system. No small amount of guilt is laid at Casino Jack’s door here, and deservedly so.
As with Enron, Casino Jack very quietly struggles to reconcile a disturbing history-beneath-the-history. That the “guys” involved in the deceit were too smart for anyone’s good, and that we who are not the guys, were we operating with true altruistic motives, should have stopped them, even though the film clearly proves we had no way of knowing the scheme beforehand. This sticking point is hardly a knock on Gibney’s exceptional direction, but it still does not inspire a truly satisfying in-theater experience or much desire for repeat viewing.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.