Alex Gibney just may be the most important documentarian in America, and Casino Jack and the United States of Money certainly doesn’t do anything to diminish that standing. It’s a story so juicy that Kevin Spacey signed on to play the lad role in the narrative film version (entitled, confusingly enough, Casino Jack) as Jack Abramoff, liar, cheater, and all-around bad guy (or, as we call him in America, a lobbyist). It’s difficult to imagine how a narrative film could have been any more intriguing or exciting than Gibney’s treatment here. He’s an expert in the art of pastiche, weaving together clips from earlier narrative films either to support or to undermine the points being made by the speakers in his footage, and tying it all together using a stable of songs that would be the envy of even the most well-connected film music supervisor. Aretha Franklin’s “The House That Jack built” is an especially appropriate — and inspired — choice.
The Abramoff story stretches from his college days, where he collaborated with well-known conservatives like Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and even Karl Rove, to his days representing (and swindling) Native American casinos and championing alleged slave labor in Malaysia, all the way to his inordinate influence on US congressmen, and huge profit from the same. One of his closest associates was former Speaker of the House Tom DeLay, one of Gibney’s chief sub-villains in the story. That Gibney gives DeLay the chance to explain himself, and that DeLay agrees to appear on camera in what he surely knows will be a hostile documentary, speaks volumes about both men. In the end, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is much more than the story of a bad man, or even of a bad party (there are plenty of Democrat lobbyist scandals too). It’s the story of a system that is broken. To that end, Gibney launched a campaign at takepart.org aimed at changing the system. It’s a refreshing touch that’s a move away from feel-bad documentaries that often leave the viewer feeeling helpless.