“Casino Jack” Hits Close to Home in States Tarnished By Abramoff Sleaze
Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
New Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has said that he wants to clean up the culture of Montgomery. That will be quite a task because Bentley’s predecessor, fellow Republican Bob Riley, spent eight years turning our capital into one of the most toxic political environments in the country.
Thankfully, a new movie shines considerable light on how Riley and his GOP cronies turned Montgomery, Alabama, into a sleaze pit. Casino Jack, starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, was released in late December and now is playing in select cities. We hope it soon will be showing in theaters across the country. It focuses on GOP felon Jack Abramoff and is must viewing for any American who wants to understand, at least in part, how our country went off the tracks in the George W. Bush years.
The film should be of special interest here in Alabama, given Riley’s documented ties to Abramoff and his fellow felon, Michael Scanlon. According to early reviews, the film portrays Scanlon as perhaps even more despicable than Abramoff. The mainstream press, curiously, seems to rarely mention that Scanlon used to work for Bob Riley.
George Hickenlooper, perhaps best know for the the documentary Hearts of Darkness, directed Casino Jack. Hickenlooper died last October, at age 47, roughly two months before his latest work was to premier. Authorities in Colorado ruled that Hickenlooper died from an accidental overdose involving a painkiller and alcohol.
We should mention that Casino Jack is not to be confused with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary by Alex Gibney that was released earlier in 2010. How did the Abramoff scandal affect the political culture in Alabama? Perhaps it is best summed up in this screen shot from the documentary. Notice in the chart superimposed over the photo that Alabama Governor Bob Rileys’ name is front and center, right under that of the felon himself:
|From Casino Jack and the United States of Money|
In May 2010, The New York Times gave the documentary a fairly positive review, although it said Gibney was hampered by taking on such a sprawling subject:
The film begins with a perfunctory re-creation of the mob-style killing of Gus Boulis, an owner of offshore casinos, whose chain was taken over by Mr. Abramoff after his death. It is the prelude to a catalog of shady dealings that include his lobbying on behalf of sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands, where clothing manufacturers were allowed to put “Made in the U.S.A.” tags on items without violating United States labor laws.
The film’s analysis of the mechanics of Mr. Abramoff’s systematic bilking of casino-owning American Indian tribes of millions of dollars is impressively thorough but too complicated to be easily assimilated. “Casino Jack” might have landed a stronger punch had it concentrated on that scandal alone. As a narrator, Mr. Gibney is no match for Bill Moyers, whose coverage of the Abramoff scandals on “Bill Moyers Journal” had a gravity, spareness and shape lacking in “Casino Jack.”
The feature film seems to be earning mostly favorable reviews. Here is part of what Roger Ebert, of The Chicago Sun-Times, had to say:
Political movies often play cute in drawing parallels with actual figures. They drop broad hints that a character is “really” Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton and so on. “Casino Jack” is so forthright, it is stunning. The film is “inspired by real events,” and the characters in this film have the names of the people in those real events: Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Rep. Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, Rep. Bob Ney and Sen. John McCain.
This decision to name names by the director George Hickenlooper seems based on boldness, recklessness or perhaps iron-clad legal assurances. His film uses a fictional sledgehammer to attack the cozy love triangle involving lobbyists, lawmakers and money. It stars Kevin Spacey in an exact and not entirely unsympathetic performance as Abramoff, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, who was convicted on charges involving the funds he stole from wealthy Indian casinos while arranging laws for their convenience on Capitol Hill. He has been released on parole and just finished a stint working in a Baltimore pizza parlor.
How might audiences react to the film? Ebert writes:
The first press screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was witnessed in a sort of stunned silence by a capacity audience, interrupted slightly by an undercurrent of incredulous murmurs and soft laughter when Spacey, as Abramoff, in a fantasy sequence, explodes at a Senate hearing chaired by McCain. Having evoked the Fifth Amendment repeatedly, he’s unable to restrain himself any longer and jumps to his feet to accuse the very members of the Senate panel of having taken campaign contributions and favors from his Indian clients and then voting in their favor. Abramoff shows some degree of honor among thieves by not pulling such a stunt.
Astonishingly, Hickenlooper intercuts real footage of the real hearing and the real John McCain with Spacey’s performance. Can he get away with this? I guess so. The film’s distributor, ATO Pictures, has no doubt had the film scrutinized by its attorneys. Apart from that, there’s the likelihood (which lawyers may think but cannot say) that no one named in this film is very likely to sue. The Abramoff scandal was called at the time the biggest since Watergate (both were broken by the Washington Post), but in the years since his sentencing in 2006, his name has faded from everyday reference, and it’s doubtful anyone desires to make it current again. With Alex Gibney’s doc “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” also around, those deep waters are being sufficiently stirred.
Yes, and those waters definitely need to be stirred, especially here in Alabama. Scanlon, Bob Riley’s former associate, upstages even Abramoff as a villain. Writes Ebert:
The film’s story line can be briefly summarized: The lobbyist Abramoff was a dutiful family man and Republican standard bearer who defrauded Indian tribes out of millions to lobby for their casinos. That enriched him and partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) and a good many members of Congress, not all of them Republicans. Abramoff worked out every day, was an observant member of his temple and a smooth and elegant dresser. Somehow at his core, he had no principles and no honesty.
If Casino Jack puts up a good front, George Hickenlooper’s film is merciless with Scanlon, a venal and vulgar man with the effrontery to flaunt his corruption. It is Spacey’s performance that contains most of the movie’s mystery; although Abramoff’s actions left little room for justification, in Spacey’s performance, there is some. Abramoff used much of the stolen money for good works, which made him appear charitable. His principal charity was himself, but there you are.
Ebert offers some important perspective on the Abramoff story, which has largely been allowed to slide out of public view:
There are scenes here that make you wonder why the Abramoff scandals (plural) didn’t outshine Watergate as the day does the night. Within Abramoff there is some small instinct for simple justice, and the film’s most dramatic scene comes as he snaps at that hearing, ignores his lawyer, forgets the Fifth Amendment and tells the panel members to their faces that they were happy to take his cash.
The overall message of “Casino Jack” has become familiar. Corporate and industry lobbyists are the real rulers in Washington, and their dollars are the real votes. Both parties harbor corruption, with the Republicans grabbing the breasts and thighs, and the Democrats pleased to have the drumsticks and wings. Jack Abramoff didn’t invent this system. He simply gamed it until Scanlon’s boldness betrayed them and another generation of lobbyists took over. Have you heard the banks are broke again?
One of our resolutions for this year is to catch both Casino Jack and Casino Jack and the United States of Money as soon as we can. We hope Legal Schnauzer readers will do the same. (The new film, to our knowledge, has not come to Alabama yet; here is a schedule of cities where the film is playing.)
Below is the official trailer for Casino Jack. As you watch it, keep in mind that the activities portrayed in this film have permeated Alabama politics for the past eight years. They had a lot to do with Bob Riley’s election (in a race that almost certainly was stolen from Democrat incumbent Don Siegelman), and re-election–and they have largely driven the decision-making that has helped make Alabama one of the most corrupt states in the nation.