"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" opens with a murder. That's appropriate, because the by the end, viewers may want to choke someone. The documentary is about money, corruption, excess, lies, greed, politics and the rise and fall of infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who according to the movie believed "Buying and selling politicians is the free market in action." It is the stuff of Hollywood (in fact "Casino Jack" directed by George Hickenlooper and starting Kevin Spacey was released in December 2010), but this story of intrigue is true.
Brought to the screen by filmmaker Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.") the picture follows Abramoff from the "College Republicans" in the 1970s and 80s, to his guilty plea for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials in 1996. During that time, he made millions of dollars, helped end the careers of two Congressman, including the House Majority Leader Tom Delay, and facilitated indictments for eleven other former Congressional aides and business partners.
Abramoff used his influence to manipulate public policy to pursue his own interests. He believed himself untouchable and like many men (and women) before him, arrogance and greed proved his foil.
The film focuses on Abramoff, but includes numerous other players and schemes. Many of the names were from the Bush/Cheney administration, or political players of the day, including Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and Grover Nordquest.
The story is unsettling and viewers will fume at the arrogance of those involved.
We learn about the "pay to play" system created by Tom Delay, which tied political access to campaign contributions, and instances where Abramoff was hired by one group to pass legislation and then hired by the opposing group to have it reversed.
Viewers also hear about Abramoff's unsavory, but legal activity in the Northern Mariana Islands. A U.S. territory, Abramoff was hired by its Governor to bring clothing manufacturers to the island. With his help, loopholes in laws were exploited, plants were built and immigrant workers were "imported". The movie claims that wages were so low workers were the equivalent of indentured servants. It also states that some women were chained to their sewing machines and others became prostitutes to survive. So, what became of the clothing manufactured in those plants? It was shipped to the United States with a "Made in the USA" label attached inside.
The film succeeds in remaining neutral, and doesn't try and steer the film in a certain ideological direction (the facts of the case are well-known and have been reported by many different sources). Abramoff was a Republican and funded like-minded politicians. He was also an equal opportunity scammer, and according to the movie, many Democrats benefited from his largess, including Harry Reid and Patrick Kennedy.
The story focuses on one man, but it is really an indictment of the country's campaign financing system. The cost of running for office is staggering and prohibitive to anyone of normal means. A large part of a politician's time is spent raising money. With two- year terms, House members are always running for office and fundraising to be competitive and fend off opposition. The movie shows the problem, but does not offer any solutions.
The film is confusing at times and uses clumsy reenactments to show important events. It is an interesting documentary that should anger the public and galvanize it to demand campaign finance reform. That is unlikely and the film ends with a bleak reminder. In 2010 the Supreme Court banned limits on corporate spending on campaigns.