Casino Jack opens with an email from the man himself — Abramoff, the dude TIME magazine said “bought Washington” — asking the filmmakers why they’re bothering with a documentary. “No one watches documentaries,” he writes. “You should make an action film!”
After a successful (and horrifying) stint as a College Republican — where career highlights included helping Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed rise to prominence, funding his own organization through a 501(c)3 scam and laundering money through charities, delivering a deliberately controversial and off-message speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention, and organizing a “freedom fighter” summit in Angola, which he dubbed “the anti-communist Woodstock” — Abramoff produced and wrote the screenplay for a bloody, explosion-filled flick of his own. The film, 1989’s Red Scorpion, features Dolph Lundgren as a short-short-sporting KGB agent who repents of his socialist ways and rebels against the Evil Empire — and it was made with funds from Apartheid-era South Africa.
Twenty minutes later, this all looks like a warm-up stretch. This documentary on Abramoff’s life has no flash or gimmicks, just interviews with journalists and politicians — including, against all odds, Tom DeLay, plus an unlikeable protagonist who’d make any of Danny McBride’s characters puke. But it makes for extremely compelling cinema, even though it’s less an action flick than a horror film.
If Abramoff’s collegiate antics don’t make your skin crawl, stay tuned. The film rushes quickly through Jack’s formative years — when a viewing of Fiddler on the Roof supposedly inspired him to “rebel against his parents’ secular ways” and convert to “orthodox” Judaism and his somehow-related (don’t ask me) anti-communist fervor led him to organize effigy burnings and fake Berlin Wall-smashings in protests eerily similar to today’s teabaggery — to get to the moneyshot. Make that shots, because Abramoff’s most famous scam — charging Native American tribes millions to get politicians to pass casino-friendly legislation — is only the capper on years of forcibly sodomizing the system.
One example: the Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth where minimum-wage and immigration laws weren’t applicable, allowing garment manufacturers to set up shop and bring in Asian immigrants to work for about $1 an hour, 18 hours a day, seven days a week (and pay recruiters several thousand dollars for the privilege), then tag the sweatshop goods with a big, fat “Made in the U.S.A.” label. When human-rights advocates started to take notice and American politicians began toying with changing Mariana’s immigration laws, the island’s government engaged Abramoff’s services for around $200,000 a month. His solution? Fly conservative politicians, including bug-stomping Tom, into Saipan, the capital, where they could go on a short, carefully supervised factory tour and then retire to the local Hyatt Regency (featuring five championship golf courses! Talk to your travel agent today!).
If the film has a flaw (other than completely disregarding Mom’s edict to keep your mouth shut when you can’t say anything nice about a fellow) it’s that it pretty much lets its heavies state their cases unchallenged, content to refute obvious falsehoods after the fact with incriminating film footage and contradictory eyewitness interviews. It would’ve been nice to watch the likes of DeLay squirm. His assertion that he saw Abramoff as “just another lobbyist” for example, is only challenged by a slideshow of photographs of Abramoff with DeLay and Ed Buckham, DeLay’s onetime chief of staff and (shudder) “personal minister.” Rasputin, anybody? And DeLay’s claim that he saw the factories in Mariana and spoke to the islands’ top human-rights advocate (the name escapes him now) who assured DeLay “there were no human rights abuses whatsoever,” is countered by hidden-camera footage of a factory foreman locking in the workers, Triangle Shirtwaist style, and the story of an immigrant who, via translator, begged one of the visiting politicians to buy his kidney so he could use the money to go back to China. What’s a better indictment of an “anti-communist” than that?
The question posed, complete with requisite Mr. Smith Goes to Washington footage, near the film’s beginning — “Were we more innocent once or just naïve” — is clearly rhetorical, but I think the answer, partially at least, is that we had less access to this kind of information. Take advantage of it, because ignorance is only bliss until you’re the one being ground into sausage. •