There’s so much reason to rage these days — from bursting oil wells and gambling banks, to unjustified wars and spineless congressional leaders. It is nice when a documentary comes along that doesn’t just stir up your rage like some Michael Moore propaganda, but carefully dissects why you should be even more pissed off than you are already.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a documentary about yesterday’s headline grabber Jack Abramoff. It starts with Abramoff’s days as a leading College Republican in the 1970s, and traces his rise to K Street Kingpin via Hollywood. His story, Casino Jack argues (and it makes a good case) is the story of the rebirth of the Republican Party. Radicalized by the 1960s, the new breed of Republican leader (people like Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove) were more extreme, more driven, and more willing to use any means necessary to make their way to the corridors of power. What drove them was a distinct ideology. The film paints the picture of two Republican parties, the ones in office and the ones pulling the strings.
Casino Jack primarily focuses on two eras in Arbamoff’s life: his time as a Red Scare Republican, who went from staging para-political mission trips to communist freedom fighters/murdering warlords in the jungles of Angola, to making capitalist propaganda action films in Hollywood. What is fascinating about this period is that the film shows how rooted in the Communist vs. Capitalist, east vs. west, black and white mentality of the later years of the Cold War this young talent of the right was. Though the film doesn’t make the connection itself, it is easy to see why the post 9-11 world was so ideologically bubbled, considering the 20th century dichotomy the major players were under the influence of.
After filling in the background, Casino Jack takes us into the storyline we are more familiar with: Abramoff’s use of Indian casino dollars to fund a lobbying empire with vast, corruptive influence. What makes the documentary so compelling is that it tells this story through the eyes of the troops on the ground, from fellow College Republicans and political organizers to congressmen and congressional staffers. Former Ohio congressman Bob Ney, who was infamously embroiled in the Abramoff scandal because of a Scottish golf trip paid for by the lobbyist, takes us through the entire episode. He seems to be clearing his conscience, but also pulling back the curtain on the way business is really done on Capital Oz. Tom DeLay, never one to shy away from the camera, also tells his story on camera, revealing a cleared and settled conscience that, given his duplicity, is nauseating.
The film’s most fascinating subject is Bob Ney’s former chief of staff, Neil Volz, who moved from Ney’s office to Abramoff’s, and was instrumental in setting up the infamous St. Andrews golf trip. Volz plays the role the rest of us probably would be caught in. The good-hearted innocent, Volz can tell something fishy is happening around him, but he is caught between duty, convention, self-doubt, and inertia. He serves as both the film’s moral compass and the answer to the question, “why does the corrupt status quo simply truck on?”
Image: A scene from Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.