Posted by keelsetter on May 16, 2010
Director Alex Gibney came to prominence with an eye-opening look at financial corruption in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2006. He would go on to actually win the coveted statuette in 2008 for another doc, this one looking at the horrors inflicted by U.S. policies condoning torture in Taxi to the Dark Side. Taking a breather from these tragedies, his next subject was Hunter S. Thompson, which must have recharged his batteries significantly because this year alone he releases three films – and the subjects are Freakonomics, Al-Qaeda, and infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Given the recent blog topic dealing with Native American Images on Film, Gibney’s doc on Abramoff, titled Casino Jack and the United States of Money, hits on a related note. No, it doesn’t touch on “Race & Hollywood,” but it’s got a heaping big dose of privileged, rich, white-guys-in-power defrauding Indian tribes. It doesn’t stop there because, as is abundantly clear to anyone paying attention to our political climate, we are all being defrauded by a corrupt system that works overtime for money rather than principles.
The bigger and over-arching story that Gibney lays flat on the table for all to see has to do with one of the legacies of the Reagan administration, in which the triumph of deregulation-happy conservatism stripped away the rules that allowed for a variety of meltdowns – from Wall Street to Washington to… well, now hundreds of square miles of toxic sludge off the coast of Louisiana. As these disasters unfold, the big question that people should be asking themselves is: how did we get here? Anyone looking for answers can find plenty of damning evidence in Casino Jack. This documentary doesn’t just trace the rise-and-fall of Abramoff’s career, it also provides a road-map for the larger political problems facing our nation.
The film kicks things off with a mob hit related to Sun Cruz Casino ships, unraveling a $40 million-dollar-scam that, ultimately, leads to Abramoff confessing to bribing 20 members of Congress.
Within the first five-minutes, this documentary (assisted by a few clips of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) asks: What was bought? What was sold? Has it always been like this? Or has something changed?
Footage of John McCain conducting hearings for the investigation into allegations of misconduct by six Indian tribes against their former lobbyist (Abramoff) is more tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. McCain talks of “insatiable greed” and “betrayal,” which end up being apt words indeed, but not just for Abramoff.
Politicians peddling access and influence for money is nothing new. But the film posits that many College Republicans from the seventies and eighties so fully embraced anything that was antithetical to the ethos of the sixties that they became proponents of having ideologues in office who view the buying and selling of power as the supreme expression of a free market in action.
For many of these self-described zealots, Reagan was the greatest man who ever lived, and they gladly took their marching orders. “In 1980 the Reagan campaign was to conservative young people what the ’72 McGovern campaign was to young people on the left.” (J. Michael Waller, Director, Institute of World Politics) Compromise was a bad word: “I do guerrilla warfare, I paint my face and travel at night, you don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” (Ralph Reed, conservative political activist and the first executive director of the Christian Coalition.)
The list of ideologues goes on: Grover Norquist (anointed by Reagan to head the Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, and famous for saying: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,”) Tom DeLay (aka: “Dereg” – among many other nicknames – for his de-regulation stance), Karl Rove (aka: “Turd-Blossom,”), and many more. These “free marketeer” activists didn’t care for old-fashioned conservative principles (like, say, conservation). For them it all boils down to making money and making sure that their view of Government as “the problem” became a dominant cultural paradigm. They certainly succeeded in convincing people of all political persuasions of this by… well… becoming part of the Government and making sure it was a problem.
To suggest they this was done on purpose would assign them too much credit. No, the simpler and bi-partisan answer is that money worshippers don’t think of their greed as a sin, but rather a virtue of “pure” market-place economics. Or, as stated in Casino Jack: “Wall Street lobbyists paid Congress to deregulate banks, accounting rules, lending limits, and housing markets – it was just what the College Republicans had dreamed about: Capitalist Revolution.” As one commentator in the film says, “They finally got what they wanted, they got their deregulated financial markets, and the whole thing collapsed.”
Our politicians are for sale, and anyone curious as to what their price-tags are will get some answers in Casino Jack. What’s shocking is how cheap they go for. Many readily avail themselves for just a few tens-of-thousands. But Abramoff’s office could also deliver access to the President of the United States for (in Malaysia’s case, getting a meeting with George W. Bush) a comparatively low one-million dollars.
Americans go relatively easy on white-collar criminals. Why? One of the fascinating suggestions posited in Casino Jack is this: when it comes to “the great American pastime” – even greater than baseball – it’s “making money.” We all harbor a dream that we’ll strike it rich. So at such times when someone is caught and a voice rises up to complain about the fact that the rich are getting away with murder, many ordinary people secretly want them to get away with murder because they dream of one day being that rich person. It’s easy to point fingers, a bit harder to take a good, strong look in the mirror.
Abramoff is the kind of guy who “could talk a dog off a meat truck,” and also a huge film-buff (he decided to become an Orthodox Jew after watching Fiddler on the Roof), he also had a soft-spot for spy thrillers. Somehow, this led to a right-wing Woodstock in Angola, Africa. Shortly thereafter, Abramoff would write and produce Red Scorpion with Dolph Lundgren; an anti-communist screed disguised as an action film that takes place in a fictional African country modeled after Angola. It’s one of many countless Rambo-like ripoffs that is ultimately remembered less for its ideology than for a series of big explosions, some impressive weight-lifting (Abramoff was a weight-lifter), and maybe a good zinger or two. (After one big shoot-out in a bar: “Are you out of your f—ing mind?” “No, just out of bullets.” And: “Let’s kick some ass!” And: “F—ing A!”)
Gibney’s film opens with an email from Abramoff that states: “Why would you want to make a documentary? No one watches documentaries. You should make an action film!”
In the case of Casino Jack & the United States of Money, let us hope that he’s wrong. It’s not a perfect film, not by far. A lot of the information it sifts through could have been presented in a clearer manner, there’s an annoying fixation with showing close-ups of hand-gestures, and the soundtrack is riddled with pop songs that are too obvious and only distract the viewer’s attention from mountain-loads of details that need to be processed. Still… this is one documentary that provides far more food-for-thought than a failed $16-million-dollar turkey of an action-film.
It’s a shame Abramoff didn’t stick to movies, at least then he was only defrauding film-goers of a few bucks. Instead, he become the poster-child for everything that is wrong about our political system; a system where Congress is serving the interests of sweat-shop owners, Russian mobsters, and anyone else who “pays to play.” The only people being left out are the taxpayers.
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