Conservatives and Cash

'Casino Jack' weaves a lot of details into its impressive telling of the Jack Abramoff story

There have always been crooks in politics, and there will always be corruption in high places. But that should not lead us to an apathetic acceptance of sleazy governance any more than the fact that there have always been mouse parts in canned food should lead us to smile indulgently at a mouthful of rodent tail in our beef-a-roni.

Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is someone who'd rather show us the paws and snouts than let them hide under the gooey, delicious sauce. Instead of using Michael Moore-style outrage and manipulative editing, or Errol Morris' self-serving aestheticism, Gibney tries very hard to tell intensely complex stories as thoroughly and fairly as possible.

Imagine a non-crazy Glenn Beck who's willing to not only draw conspiracy diagrams, but back them up with the sort of things that Fox News personalities deplore (i.e., facts). Gibney's that guy: Instead of inventing conspiracies, he exposes them. Which means he can't use broad leaps of logic to make amusing plot-oriented dramas like Beck does.

But Casino Jack and the United States of Money manages to be riveting entertainment while still guaranteeing that the next time you eat a sausage or read the congressional record, you'll look inside for sawdust and dead prostitutes.

The film tells the story of Jack Abramoff, famous for the Indian-casino scandal that transformed Tom DeLay from the world's most graft-loving congressman into the world's worst TV dancing star. But Gibney is less interested in vilifying Abramoff than he is in showing the money system that Abramoff used.

The movie starts with the murder of Gus Boulis, a riverboat-casino operator whose business was being acquired by Abramoff and associates. But that was only the latest in a long line of sleazy moves wherein Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay and dozens of others conned Christians, Native Americans and conservatives into giving their hard-earned cash to the patriotic cause of making Abramoff and pals very, very wealthy.

It all started when Abramoff and company took over the College Republicans and began using that organization to launder money. From there, they went on to consorting with terrorists, and then, with Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution," they found that they could make obscene amounts of cash by supporting slavery and conning Native American businesspeople.

The difficulty in filming this story regards how long and complex it is. Take, for example, Abramoff's aiding and abetting in the debt-slavery ring. He began to take money from those with financial and political interests in sweat shops in the Mariana Islands. These factories were involved in transporting workers to the island after owners offered low wages—and then didn't pay the wages because of alleged debts. Those familiar with the system know how it works: The debt only grows as the workers greedily demand things like "barely edible food" and "a crappy place to sleep."

All well and good, and Abramoff made sure that no legislation was passed that would help the workers and cut into the factory owners' profits. To do that, he lobbied congressmen, brought them to the island, showed them a happy worker or two, and steered them away from the independent human-rights organizations that were cataloging the rapes, beatings and enslavement.

Abramoff was not new to this sort of work. In college, he majored in evil, and then, with some of his pals, formed an organization to support international terrorism. Bringing together the Nicaraguan Contras, Afghani guerillas and Angola UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, Abramoff and company staged what they thought of as a "conservative Woodstock."

Which is sad, because conservatism could have used a Woodstock, but instead of booking groovy bands singing about Edmund Burke and Matthew Arnold, Abramoff served up a bill of performers who did more torturing and murdering than half of George W. Bush's cabinet.

This story occupies only a fraction of the film, though it could have been a film in itself. But Gibney has to go on to show how DeLay turned lobbyists into fundraisers; how fake Christians like Ralph Reed managed to never glance at Luke 18:18-25 but somehow made use of Leviticus 25:44; how the anti-Semitic prime minister of Malaysia used Abramoff to get access to the White House; and, most charmingly, the way Abramoff ran a multi-million-dollar scam on Native American casinos.

He paid former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed big bucks, through some front companies, to lobby against legalized gambling in Texas. Reed claimed that he was doing this on Christian principles, but the money was coming from casino interests in neighboring Louisiana, who didn't want the competition.

Then, when the Texas casinos were reduced to dime slot machines, Abramoff went in and told them he'd lobby on their behalf. Of course, they had no idea that he was the one who'd had them shut down in the first place.

But, again, this is only a small part of the film, though it's told in great detail. What's amazing about Casino Jack is that Gibney can jam so much information into it, but still keep it entertaining. It's carefully edited, with clever use of visuals that never draw attention to themselves, but instead reinforce the voiceovers and other narrative elements.

In the end, Casino Jack will probably leave you sickened and appalled, but wanting to learn more. If Gibney went to all the trouble to research and create this film—and to do so without the kind of partisan simplicity that make Michael Moore and Glenn Beck so much fun and so misleading—he did so because he had faith in American audiences to handle complexity. That faith is the opposite of the cynicism of Abramoff, DeLay, Ralph Reed and their buddies, who think that Americans are stupid, and that stupid people should be fleeced. It's worth paying back Gibney's faith with a movie ticket and a little awareness.