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Abramoff revisited in Alex Gibney's 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money'

Alex Gibney
"What I found was a charming and at times very funny man." -- Alex Gibney on JackAbramoff (Magnolia Pictures)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

A couple of unexpected guests showed up at the world premiere of "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month: former congressman Bob Ney and his erstwhile chief of staff Neil Volz, both of whom were implicated in the bribery and fraud scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the film's subject.

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"It was a nervous-making moment," said "Casino Jack" director Alex Gibney in a telephone conversation after the screening. "I think it was painful, but they both thought it was fair."

"Casino Jack" is one of the most highly anticipated films of the season, not only because Gibney has recently defined the gold standard in nonfiction filmmaking with such muckraking documentaries as "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," which won the feature documentary Oscar in 2008. Even though Abramoff has long since been indicted and sentenced, many of the issues that swirled around him still percolate today, from the Supreme Court's recent ruling on corporate contributions to political campaigns to Republican Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts.

"Casino Jack," which will open in May, presented a number of challenges for Gibney. For one thing, Abramoff's story sprawls over multiple eras, locations, issues and points of lurid interest. Abramoff's commission of wire fraud to buy the SunCruz Casino fleet of gambling boats -- a deal that featured the footnote of the cruise line's former owner being killed in a gangland-style murder -- could probably make a feature film of its own.

Or someone could simply track Abramoff's Hollywood career (he produced "Red Scorpion"). Or his work with the College Republicans, which included helping to organize Massachusetts the year Ronald Reagan won in that state. Or his bilking of Native American tribes, with his partner Michael Scanlon, overcharging them for lobbying fees while helping Ralph Reed begin an anti-gambling campaign. Or leading Tom DeLay -- then a congressman, now a failed "Dancing With the Stars" contestant -- on trips to the Marianas Islands, the better for DeLay to vote against applying American labor laws to the garment companies working there under the "Made in U.S.A." label.

"Our problem was too much story," Gibney said. "After Sundance I may go in and try, oddly enough, to take some information out. Just so that people aren't relentlessly trying to catch up."

Abramoff's journey from Hollywood High to Super Bowl skybox to prison cell is enough to leave anyone breathless. And clearly, the movie industry thinks audiences will want to take that ride: Gibney arrived in Park City with "Casino Jack" already claimed by a distributor, Magnolia Pictures. That put him in something of a catbird seat compared with his hungry brethren looking for a deal in a notoriously lean year.

Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, has been incarcerated since 2006. Gibney visited his subject in jail, although he was not allowed to film the interviews. Did he come away with a different impression of Abramoff from what he expected?

"What I found was a charming and at times very funny man," he said, "which I don't think should have surprised me, because one of his great assets was being a tremendous salesman. And I walked away understanding a little bit more about this peculiar process. I think Scanlon was criminal in terms of his character. I think Jack is more of a zealot, who was led to corruption through his idealism."


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