by Matt Lynch Film Horizon Line

Casino Jack and the United States of Money — Alex Gibney

August 17, 2010

Late in Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a damning but top-heavy indictment of clearly evil Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, we’re shown footage of Abramoff testifying before Congress. Even when questioned on relatively trivial matters, like whether or not he called someone such-and-such name, he repeatedly invokes the Fifth Amendment. The narrator intones gravely: “Unable to say anything but a few stock lines, the former movie producer found himself trapped in someone else’s film, cast as a perfect villain.” That’s a reference to Abramoff’s scheme to illegally provide funds to a violent third-world warlord while also producing a third-rate action movie called Red Scorpion, but it’s also kind of symptomatic of the strange problem that infects the film. Casino Jack is at bottom a lengthy info-dump that in the course of lining up detail after incriminating detail about Abramoff’s many schemes, eventually threatens to topple from the sheer weight of so much obvious malfeasance.

All that is a long-winded way of saying that Gibney’s admittedly meticulous research is less a piece of documentary cinema than it is a list of charges, and while Gibney is correct in his thesis that Abramoff is very obviously a proven Bad Man, that alone does not, in practice, make for especially insightful or skillful filmmaking. To rattle off the list of Abramoff’s many misdeeds would essentially defeat the purpose of watching the film itself, but suffice it to say that he makes an excellent and appropriate whipping boy for our current distrust of government and corporate culture. There’s a massive paper trail proving all of his illegal and unethical activities, and there are a great many people willing to go on the record to talk about them. Now he’s in jail, and deservedly so. But Gibney finally couches all of this information in a “wake-up call,” pleading for his audience to understand that “this could all happen again” if proper action is not taken. Trouble is, there’s no ambiguity left in this story: the bad guys were, for the most part, punished, and the only remaining case for this film to make is that corruption is and always has been an integral if unfortunate element of government and capitalism. There’s no point of view on display here beyond incredulity and indignation, ultimately making Casino Jack seem more like a bloated Wikipedia page.