Politics At The Movies

Casino Jack

Directed by Norman Schneider

Playing at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St.) through March 17

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

Even those who don’t follow politics closely are likely to be at least aware of the story of Jack Abramoff – a guy to whom “disgraced lobbyist” is a kind of job title. Even for those who know the story, this film will likely be informative. This is a competent film, if sometimes told in overly broad strokes. But it still felt like something was missing – though the thing that’s missing may well be inside the soul of its subject.

Most biopics of reviled figures seem to try to find some sort of good inside them, some trauma or perceived injustice that explains the terrible things they have done. But, at least according to my reading, “Casino Jack” doesn’t ask us to believe that Abramoff was anything more than a shallow, self-important bully. Hubris doesn’t work as a plot device when you’ve got nothing but hubris to work with.

One thing that is interesting is watching Kevin Spacey transform himself into the hulking, menacing Abramoff. Usually mild-mannered and unthreateningly proportioned – the very traits that helped make him so memorable in films like “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects” – Spacey seems to have put on weight for this role. In fact, the film opens with Spacey in front of a mirror giving himself a pep talk, something that plays out as a kind of acting exercise done by a master.  

He’s actually believable when he spews out lines like “I’m Jack Abramoff and work out every day!” when power-talking on a Bluetooth and pumping a dumbbell at the same time. Indeed, one of the strangest parts of the Abramoff scandal when it happened was all the people who came out of the woodwork to say that Abramoff had bullied and beaten them up back in middle school – which is precisely why the scandal became so delicious, even for many who aren’t even liberals.

Of course, many of us agree that Spacey is usually great. The question is, is he great in the service of anything here? One of the most satisfying moments of the film – when he points out the hypocrisy of the politicians who have accepted checks from him in the past – turns out to be a fantasy. And it’s not like we needed this film to tell us that our money-driven system of politics is corrupt.

The film also does not turn into a wider indictment of political excess in the Bush years. This seems appropriate. It does suggest that a pair of well-known right wing figures also may have been guilty of crimes: one-time Religious Right it-boy Ralph Reed (whose star has fallen in more recent years) and Grover Norquist (who seems to have become more prominent). A pair of Republican Congressmen, Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, also had their careers destroyed in the scandal, but in the kinds of dealings that have also felled Democrats.

But the revulsion which the lobbying and political establishment seemed to feel for Abramoff actually makes them look good. Abramoff had access in the Bush administration, but his real crimes were elsewhere. They were also pretty mundane, largely-non political crimes, involving bilking Indian tribes and getting involved in a Florida-based casino cruise ship business. In fact, it was the involvement of actual organized crime figures with no political connections that helped bring him down fast and hard when that casino cruise business deal went sour.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the light it sheds on Indian gaming in this country. Abramoff and his philandering business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper in a thoroughly loathsome performance) don’t just take advantage of inexperienced nouveau-riche gaming tribes. They skillfully sideline the tribal leaders who see through their shtick. Inevitably, they destroy one guy’s life so thoroughly that he has nothing better to do than help hound Abramoff into the slammer. As someone who has covered tribal gaming extensively, this part of the film is both familiar and fascinating.

Also interesting is Abramoff’s Jewish faith. In fact, these parts give him just about the only bits of humanity that actually seem to leak through. We hardly see his relationships with his five children, and I ended up feeling little sympathy for his wife. But when an angry DeLay gets back at him by forcing him to pray to “our savior Jesus Christ,” there’s more humanity in his momentary scowl than in most of the rest of Spacey’s portrayal. To be a faithful Jew in political movement so steeped in evangelical Christianity must have been a complex and difficult experience.

In the end, despite the way he transformed K Street lobbying, marginalized Democrats and briefly became perhaps the most important non-elected person in the country, I was left feeling that Abramoff was an accident of history. He may talk of rebelling against mediocrity, but when he and Scanlon avoid all real questions by quoting movies and cluelessly alienate those who will later participate in their downfall, they seem less like masters of the universe and more like frat boys who hope the kegger will never end. The question isn’t so much where Abramoff went wrong, but how such an empty man became so important in the first place.  

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