The story about Jack Abramoff is not just a sad story of human failure, but a well-documented exposé of a capitalist democracy in trouble. Companies needing legislative favors, whether related to setting up Chinese sweatshops or deregulation of Wall Street, hire persuasive, charismatic lobbyists to influence policy decisions.
And lobbyists, perceiving their power to influence, invest in schemes to get more and more money to influence the politicians who are dependent on cash flows to win re-election campaigns.
The voice-over: “We’ve lost sight of whom Congress serves.”
Alex Gibney, the 2007 Oscar doc winner (“Taxi to the Dark Side” on U.S. torture and interrogation) who is currently debuting his current doc-in-progress on Eliot Spitzer at the Tribeca Film Festival, ran a screening of “Casino Jack and the United Sates of Money” (“CJUSM”) using Livestream.com on April 23 (2010).
A nice caveat was that after the screening Gibney, the writer/director, came on a chat line to answer questions, including one asking when Abramoff changed from a strong Republican conservative to downright corrupt swindler. Gibney answered that this transformation seemed to be a process and that there didn’t seem to be an exact moment. However, he added that zealotry mixed with money is a dangerous combination. And that theme resonates throughout his film.
The best thing about “CJUSM” is that it documents corruption in the U.S. Government for public record. Since U.S. legislators are dependent on so much financial support to be re-elected, the role of the lobbyist and the potential for conflicts of interest is ripe with opportunity.
Gibney worked to get in as much information in two hours that he could. He used footage from a wide range of sources and he had several different people talk about their experiences with Abramoff and his world. In addition, Gibney added music, film clips and a varying rhythm of presentation to keep the viewer’s attention. The production is polished, professional and fast paced.
Gibney’s obvious dedication to the truth and to exposing destructive practices in the U.S. legislative system makes this a perfect educational film. Pairing it with his website and more information about American political representatives, given at the end of this article, is a true public service.
That being said, it is only fair to be honest here. Despite Gibney’s good intentions, obvious intelligence and high expectations for the audience, watching this two hour doc felt like being pelted by rapidly descending hail. It was like he dropped one cookie in a pretty big cookie jar and then those cookies were just coming in faster and faster, getting crammed in there and then overflowing … will they stop?
Ah, perhaps that parallels the gushing speed of Abramoff’s demise. As he worked to defraud Indian gaming casinos of millions in order to give luxurious gifts, i.e. Scotland golf trips, to U.S. legislators like Tom DeLay, he became more and more careless and extravagant in his charlatanry.
But all I needed was the narrator to say, in a calm, Oprah-like voice, what the main point was: Abramoff was guilty of … or American government is in jeopardy because … And then I just needed three main contentions that proved that thesis. I am being taught here, you know? This is a Civics or PolySci unit on legislative practices. Don’t be shy about admitting what’s happening here – education of the viewer. Fine.
The second problem was that there were too many speakers, too many short clips, too many photos and too many words. New Yorkers may be used to these short, fast sound-bites, but out here in the Northwest, some of us like to linger over complicated info a little longer in order to process it critically. Please note that Seattle has the highest level, per capita, of college educated inhabitants in the U.S. We are a thinking bunch, so cast and blast strategies are suspect to us.
All of that said, this film provides a crucial account for the public record – just like docs on the Women’s African Peace Movement (“Pray the Devil Back to Hell”), the Ellsberg’s leak during the Vietnam War protests (“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”), and the exposé on U.S. agribusiness (“Food, Inc.”). Gibney has done a masterful job of making “CJUSM” as complete and detailed as possible while adding entertainment factors like the Tom DeLay moment on “Dancing with the Stars” when he slides across the stage to “Wild Thing.”
Twenty years ago, my neighbor, Mrs. Rachel Rabinowitz, wryly joked, “People used to think the world was flat. Then they decided it was round. Today we all know it is crooked.” So perhaps times haven’t changed, or even our perspectives. But how devious, how bad, how corrupt does it have to get?
When asked what Americans can do, Gibney recommended three things:
1. Support Durbin’s new bill in Congress: http://durbin.senate.gov/showRelease.cfm?releaseId=324157
2. Check contributions to Congress: www.govtrack.us/congress/findyourreps.xpd
3. Go to his website: www.takepart.com/casinojack
“Casino Jack and the United States of Money” will be released to theatres May 7.
Release to major theatres: May 7, 2010
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
MPAA: Rated R for some language.
Runtime: 120 min
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