Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Politics as usual

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By Matt Brunson

CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY

DIRECTED BY Alex Gibney

STARS Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay

Michael who? Certainly, Michael Moore is the most famous — and most controversial — documentarian out there, but his methods manage to turn off even many of those on the left side of the political divide. By comparison, only the most hardened of American fascists would find fault with the works of the relatively unknown Alex Gibney, whose comprehensive nonfiction pieces are more straightforward — and therefore less open to debate — than Moore's muckrakers.

Gibney's 2007 Iraq war expose Taxi to the Dark Side earned the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award while 2005's Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room landed on many critics' year-end 10 Best lists (including mine). Casino Jack and the United States of Money isn't as good as either of those films, but it's just as important, using the story of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff as a stepping stone to also examine how this country's politicians — particularly those on the right — have completely distanced themselves from serving the public interest in order to focus exclusively on hoarding as much money and power as possible.

This is hardly revelatory, of course, and a sense of deja vu does dampen the overall viewing experience. But Gibney must be commended for once again taking mounds of knotty material and laying it out in a manner that for the most part manages to be both informative and entertaining. He traces Abramoff all the way from his position as one of the key College Republicans during the influential, Reagan-ruled 1980s to his standing as the lobbyist with the most access to such high-powered Republican sleazemongers as Tom DeLay and Bob Ney to, finally, his incarceration for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Along the way, we also see how he and his right-wing cronies support sweatshop slavery on the Mariana Islands and trumpet it as a shining example of "free enterprise."

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Abramoff and a few others landed in jail (Abramoff will be released at the end of this year), but there's little joy to be had from this saga, since a long list of other crooks from the Bush-Cheney glory years — among them Ralph Reed, DeLay and Bush himself (who laughably claimed not to know Abramoff after the scandals broke) — never served time for their crimes. Worse, the soiled democracy on view in this film remains unchallenged in real life. Ultimately, Casino Jack and the United States of Money's worth is as a cautionary tale, but is anybody listening?

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