By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; WE35
Convicted super lobbyist Jack Abramoff was so corrupt, there's no easy summary of his crimes. He and his cronies were masters of "astroturfing" -- creating phony grass-roots campaigns to hide big corporate money -- and the old-fashioned flimflam, playing one client against another. They persuaded Christian activists to fund anti-gambling campaigns against Indian tribes, who then paid Abramoff to muster congressional support in defense of their casinos. His crimes were ideally adapted to the age of complex derivatives: The web was so complicated and opaque that only when it began to collapse did its true extent become apparent.
Alex Gibney, who took home an Oscar for the 2007 documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," struggles to get his arms around the amorphous, appalling and yet shockingly banal schemes of Abramoff in "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." Not to be confused with George Hickenlooper's fictional treatment of the same scandals (starring Kevin Spacey) scheduled for release later this year, Gibney's documentary strains to make sense of the minutiae without losing the audience's attention over its formidable, two-hour length.
Fact may be stranger than fiction, but Gibney's account comes to life only when Abramoff's bankrupt soul is revealed in strokes bold enough for satire. His e-mails, bursting with contempt for his own clients, are some of the best material in the film. And there are other golden moments, though many of them are already familiar: When we learn he committed to Orthodox Judaism after seeing "Fiddler on the Roof," that his Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant Signatures offered "liberal portions in a conservative setting," that one of his large and important-sounding front organizations was headed by a Rehoboth Beach lifeguard who charmingly confesses, "I'm not qualified to run a Baskin-Robbins."
But Gibney's efforts at a larger narrative are problematic, in part because it seems that Abramoff, who is scheduled to be released from federal prison in December, was a nasty, cynical, devious lowlife right from the start. There was no Lady Macbeth whispering in impressionable Jack's ear, no road paved with good intentions, no Rake's Progress. He rose quickly in college Republican circles, forged a powerful nexus with Christian conservative Ralph Reed and anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, and then started cashing in once Republicans came into congressional power with the 1994 elections. Close ties to former House majority leader Tom DeLay, other top Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) in Congress, plus Bush administration officials helped Abramoff form one of the most powerful networks ever to warp the ways of democracy.
Gibney's larger thesis -- that Abramoff wasn't exceptional, but rather a manifestation of an openly acknowledged alliance between moneyed interests and elected officials -- undermines his efforts to build outrage. This is the new normal, and there's DeLay all but saying (without a hint of shame) what should sound outrageous: that if public officials are bought openly and transparently, well, what's wrong with that? Isn't that capitalism?
Gibney reaches into the usual bag of tricks to keep things light and snappy as he tries to connect the many dots. He throws in clips from old films (please, no more using Jimmy Stewart's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), and he uses wry chapter headings such as "Treasure Island" for a section of the film detailing Abramoff's lobbying efforts on behalf of sweatshop owners in the Northern Mariana Islands, and lots of retro music with funny lyrics. The tone of much of the film has that knowing, cynical, can't-shock-me-anymore flavor of liberal political satire on cable television.
The presence of several of the major players in the scandal helps keep the film from becoming a screed. Former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who went to jail in 2007 for his involvement with Abramoff, talks openly about his participation, as does Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, who is the only person in the film who sounds convincingly chastened. DeLay also sits for an interview, nervously rubbing his hands but standing his ground.
But it's hard to assume Gibney's ironic tone and still expect to scandalize your audience into outrage. It's hard to make these dull, hollow, scheming men, who live in the perpetual testosterone-soaked locker room of adolescence, who seem to have no intellectual or spiritual depth, who take sophomoric pleasure in golf trips, sky boxes and private planes, into cinematic villains. They are pond scum -- they are Washington -- yet not quite interesting enough to be characters in a film.
So Gibney expands his focus, going for breadth when depth, at least in terms of character, is elusive. The film swells with Russian oil execs, Chinese sweatshop owners and Miami hit men. It swells in length, too, taxing the patience of even the most committed student of corruption. Ultimately, it becomes a Rorschach test of the viewer's cynicism: Does it shock you? You must not live in Washington, read the newspaper or follow politics. Are you horrified? Congratulations, and now wise up.