As you watch Casino Jack and the United States of Money, currently playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema, the most disconcerting fact that you may not be aware of—besides all the obvious elements of bribery, corruption, mob hits, and unrestrained greed—is that there are no women in the movie. At least no women on the side of Team Abramoff. There are cameos from journalists Susan Schmidt and Nina Easton as well as Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But otherwise, nary a female is in sight beyond the sex and sweatshop workers of the Northern Marianas and a Hill staffer or two. (There’s a very brief glimpse of Tom DeLay’s Dancing With the Stars partner, Cheryl Burke, but only for a moment, so it doesn’t count.)
Presumably, when filmmaker Alex Gibney (director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side) decided to make a movie about Jack Abramoff—the pubescent-conservative-activist-turned-film-producer-turned-lobbyist-turned-super-fraudster—he just couldn’t find any. After all, every pertinent element of Abramoff’s life—from the College Republicans (with cameos from a reedy Karl Rove, sporting magnificent sideburns, and a spotty Grover Norquist) to the golfing trips with congressmen—screams Big Boys Club. Not even Abramoff’s beleaguered wife, Pam Alexander, gets a mention. You don’t have to be male to be corrupt, as the malefactions of Baltimore’s own Sheila Dixon have proven. But apparently, it sure helps.
Odd tidbits pepper Gibney’s movie. Abramoff (or prisoner number 27593-112, as he’s currently known) was born in Atlantic City—a fact that seems appropriate, given the events that led to his imprisonment. A movie fan, he converted to orthodox Judaism as a teenager after watching Fiddler on the Roof. Abramoff was a lineman on the high-school football team and a star wrestler who could bench-press 510 pounds. At Brandeis University, he ran a winning campaign for chairman of the College Republican National Committee, which was managed by Norquist. He liked pulpy, anti-Communist novels; a taste reflected in Red Scorpion, the movie he cowrote and produced about an anti-Soviet freedom fighter played by Dolph Lundgren. All that before he became a lobbyist in 1994.
But the problem with Gibney’s movie is that we’ve heard these details before. A true exploration of corruption would take far longer than Gibney has in between the color. Really, the most interesting part of the movie is Casino Jack himself, but although Abramoff was interviewed at length, prison rules prevented taping, so we see very little of him.
The one thing the movie does best, à la documentarian superstars Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, is to expose how mind-blowingly bizarre the whole system is. Politicians need money for their campaigns, which have become phenomenally expensive. Lobbyists need legislation that favors their clients. Clients have giant pools of money, which will increase tenfold if their favorable legislation is passed. Put them all together, with some fancy steak dinners and a trip to the Caribbean or two, and corruption is inevitable—as is the surprise and shock when it’s just as inevitably exposed.
One of the most memorable juxtapositions in the movie involves Representative George Miller, who recalls a trip to the Northern Marianas Islands. There, a translator broke down into tears when a sweatshop worker asked Miller to buy his kidney so he could pay off his debt and go home to his family. At the same time, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Ralph Hall were going on Abramoff’s authorized “tours” of factories, meeting management-approved employees, spending a few days playing golf, and then returning to Washington to testify about the excellent and fair sweatshops they’d seen on their trip.
It doesn’t leave you with much hope—particularly when, as an endnote, the movie mentions that a Supreme Court ruling in January banned limitations on corporate funding of elections—and it concludes with a clip of Tom DeLay’s infamous “Wild Thing” moment from Dancing With the Stars. No doubt when Abramoff gets out this year, there’s a reality show waiting for him.