Casino Jack and the art of the steal

By the late director George Hickenlooper’s own admission, Casino Jack is only a “fictional” story based on the real events surrounding the fall of Jack Abramoff, the man the Wall Street Journal once called “the superlobbyist.”

Casino Jack isn’t a documentary, but it isn’t entirely fiction either. Real names are used throughout the film, and you even see real footage of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearings that started the rapid downfall of the most powerful lobbyist this country has ever seen.

As Abramoff, who recently served three-and-a-half years of a six-year sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy, Kevin Spacey is superb. Nobody plays “asshole” quite like him. He’s such a natural that, even knowing the story in advance, you give Abramoff the benefit of the doubt when he downplays his own assholeness. At the beginning of the film, we see Abramoff being held at a federal facility next to a white tattooed guy named “Snake” who is in for assault and battery. When Snake asks him what he’s in for, Spacey shines.

“Me? Oh, I work in D.C. … I’m a lobbyist,” replies Abramoff. Snake asks: “Is that against the law?” A title card then shows a dictionary’s meaning of the word:

1. A person who tries to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest.

2. A person who tries to influence public officials to take a desired action.

No, Snake, lobbying is not illegal. But the movie’s intrinsic message is that, given enough money, you can manipulate any politician to make him/her vote the way you want. And if you still believe democracy means “government by the people,” wake up. “The people” have never governed anywhere in the world — not in Greece, and not here. And they never will. It is corporations and people like Abramoff and his Senate cronies, both Democrats and Republicans, who make things happen … until someone screws everything up.

In the case of Abramoff, the idiot was a close associate who told his fiancée how they were screwing the Choctaw Indians out of millions before proceeding to cheat on her. To take revenge, the former fiancée spills the tale to the FBI.

Only Abramoff and a handful of others ever went to jail for this as, one by one, the congressmen, senators, and president (Bush II) who benefitted from Abramoff’s ruthlessness for years began their chorus of denial. Abramoff? Never met the guy.

The movie is entertaining and well-acted, but has one major flaw: In order to explain the complex issues at hand, it uses an imaginary silly narration by Abramoff himself and a rapid-fire, Preston Sturges-style of comedy (minus Sturges, that is). This waters down the severity of the actions by all involved.

Only towards the end, when Abramoff’s castle of cards falls apart, is the movie at its best. Abramoff, pleading the Fifth Amendment at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, imagines exposing committee chairman John McCain for the fraud he is. And you can’t help but cheer for him.

“You should be sitting there instead of me,” Abramoff tells McCain, whose first campaign against George W. Bush years earlier had been destroyed, in great part, by Abramoff’s cunning efforts. “For years you took tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists just like me representing competing Indian tribes who wanted to open up their own casinos that would’ve shut my clients down.” Then, pointing to McCain, he turned to the audience. “This man, this son of a bitch is guilty, and if he is allowed to go free then there is something really wrong going on here.”

But it was just his imagination. Abramoff kept his mouth shut, and went from making millions of dough in Washington to making dough at a Baltimore pizza place for no more than $10 an hour. (If the film leaves you wanting more substance, check Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.)

And don’t feel sorry for “buff guy,” as Bush Jr. referred to him: If the world of freedom, brains, winners, and losers Abramoff preached for years really exists, he’ll be back in no time.



Casino Jack

Dir. George Hickenlooper; writ. Norman Snider; feat. Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz. (R)

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