Hollywood must have been chomping at the bit to tell the story of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Today’s filmmakers relish the chance to bring down GOP-friendly targets and aren’t above twisting the facts to do so. Consider Fair Game, the new film which buries the identity of the leaker in the Valerie Plame case until the film’s waning moments, the better to slander folks like Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. Roger L. Simon and Lionel Chetwynd dubbed it “Hollywood’s Most Untruthful Film of the Year,” in a recent edition of their Poliwood show on PJTV.
And the 2008 film W. portrayed a two-term Republican president as a notch or two above a dunce.
Abramoff doesn’t deserve our sympathy. The super-lobbyist swindled Native American tribes out of millions and managed to make dirty politics even dirtier with his fiscal high jinks.
So it’s fascinating to see Casino Jack, a film that dares to make Abramoff a flawed but very human character. Yes, the new film demonizes the figures swirling around the scandal and makes sure not to slam the Democrats who got caught up in the scandal. But Casino Jack entertains first and foremost, something the aforementioned films couldn’t be bothered to do.
Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey stars as Abramoff, a well connected lobbyist whose ambitions far outstrip his moral code. His work on behalf of Native American tribes takes a nasty turn when he realizes he can charge exorbitant fees in exchange for his political connections.
He’s egged on by his right-hand man Mike Scanlon (an oily Barry Pepper) and the chance to live a life that’s anything but mediocre. Spacey delivers a telling monologue in the film’s opening scene that shows Abramoff’s inability to accept anything save greatness.
Abramoff’s schemes start to pay off, but his ego and bank account aren’t satisfied. He learns of a floundering Florida casino and enlists a shady businessman (Jon Lovitz) to help revive it. Lovitz’s post-Saturday Night Live career has been fitfully creative at best. Here, he’s perfectly cast as the kind of moral cretin who sometimes succeeds in our culture — for a while.
The deal marks the beginning of the end for Abramoff, a man with an insatiable appetite for, well, just about everything money can buy.
Spacey’s recent resume is littered with questionable decisions (Fred Claus) and commercial duds (Beyond the Sea). Here, he summons all his considerable charisma to give Abramoff a dignity other actors couldn’t convey.
“I’m Jack Abramoff, and I work out every day,” is one of the character’s mantras, and Spacey makes it sound almost noble.
Other film treatments might have spent two full hours demonizing Abramoff, but here we watch him pour money into a Jewish school and explore other philanthropic goals. The film doesn’t detest Abramoff, per se. It’s more fired up about the political system which gave rise to Abramoff and his goon squad.
Even conservative audiences might disagree with the tactic — Abramoff hurt not just innocents but his own party, helping the “Culture of Corruption” charges stick in the minds of many voters. But making the character multi-dimensional keep the film afloat.
Jeffrey R. Smith’s take on Grover Norquist, by comparison, is one-dimensionally callous. And Scanlon comes off only slightly better, with Pepper imbuing the character with a take-no-prisoners energy that’s both horrifying and oddly compelling.
Casino Jack does include some obvious caricatures. In one scene Rep. Tom DeLay is berating Abramoff with an obscenity-laced rant, only to modulate his tone when he realizes a man of faith is in the room with them. To the filmmakers, the religious right can be a nasty bunch, men who cling to their religion for show purposes.
And we’re constantly reminded of Abramoff’s connections. The camera lingers over pictures of him with heavy GOP hitters like President George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, and the script makes it clear Abramoff had others like them on his speed dial. Even when the film is scoring political points — some justly earned — it doesn’t lose sight of the entertainment factor. That’s something all but missing in political misfires like Fair Game, Lions for Lambs, and Rendition.
The film does add some gratuitous slams against George W. Bush near the end, an unnecessary swipe that goes against the tone established through the rest of the movie.
Director George Hickenlooper, the cousin of Colorado Governor-elect John Hickenlooper, who died at age 47 a few weeks before Casino Jack’s nationwide release, keeps the tone surprisingly light despite the various crimes and a man viciously attacked with a ball point pen.
What’s more impressive is how much information comes across without bogging down the narrative. Consider the longer, and more dense, documentary on Abramoff’s crimes released earlier this year. Casino Jack and the United States of Money might be a more enriching take on the scandal. But Spacey and Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack proves the movie industry is still capable of taking a politically loaded topic and bringing it to the screen with its colorful personalities intact.
Editor’s Note: For a very different take on Casino Jack, don’t miss this recent edition of Poliwood on PJTV.