Saturday, April 23, 2011

Casino Jack and The United States of Money (Alex Gibney, 2010)


Jack-off all trade

The title of Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and The United States of Money doesn't quite have the right swing--you keep looking for an extra syllable or two--but the subject matter, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, is as compelling as all hell.

Of interest of course is where Abramoff comes from, the development of the College Republicans, and what they stood for--basically unfettered business, limited government. Abramoff in the old photos seems like a presentably handsome bright young man, with a charming smile; his adventures with this group reads like a musical farce adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, where the eponymous character out of idealism and naivete blunders into one scrape or another, all due to a surfeit of good intentions--a marked contrast to the the more cynical, more visibly dissipated Abramoff that we see later.

Gibney gives us a "greatest hits" of Abramoff's colorful career, being careful to name his fellow collaborators: Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Neil Volz, Michael Scanlon. Looming in the background, rock star to this band of rodents, is the oversized figure of Tom DeLay, the powerful Republican majority whip--you know when he steps into a room; even on video his personal wattage make your arm hairs stand up.

Gibney needs some of that star power; he unfortunately doesn't have actual interviews of Abramoff to galvanize and play off against contradictory footage and overall dominate his documentary (the way, say, Robert McNamara galvanizes, plays off against, and dominates Errol Morris' The Fog of War (2003), or the way Michael Moore for better or worse dominates all his movies). That said, there's plenty here to entertain and enthrall and, ultimately, infuriate.

The casino case is given center stage of course--where various Native American tribes gave as much as $45 million in three years to Abramoff to lobby for their interests (in a hilarious little footnote, it turns out Abramoff was at least partly responsible for the closing of one of the casinos he is championing--a maneuver the Mafia, with their ties to both trucking and road repair businesses, might appreciate). One of the picture's comic highlights has a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs reading back to Abramoff his own hideously embarrassing email messages regarding his Native American clients: "These mofos are the stupidest idiots in the land for sure!" or "we need to get some money from those monkeys!!" To which Abramoff's reply is almost always some variation of "I can't answer that" or "I can't comment on that."

But for my money easily the worse single scandal he was ever involved in, and possibly the most heartrending, is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) affair. Chinese, Filipinos and other Asians were imported into the islands to manufacture garments (t-shirts, pants and the like); because the CNMI was United States territory, this allowed the manufacturers to label their product "made in the USA" and deliver them into the country without tariffs or quota restrictions.

Conditions in the sweatshops were horrific. The workers' passports were confiscated; they worked seven day weeks, eighteen hours a day. Pregnant women were forced to abort their pregnancies so they could keep working. Food, rent and other expenses were deducted from salaries, meaning the workers couldn't even earn the return trip back home. Some women to earn that extra money, would resort to prostitution, resulting in a flourishing sex trade.

Coupled with this living tragedy was the human comedy of Abramoff arranging to have various US congressmen and senators brought over for a visit--they'd be given a token tour of the factories, then off to the golf courses or snorkeling or nightclubs (that flourishing sex trade). Tom DeLay after one such trip declared the factories "a free-market success," and successfully blocked every attempt by other lawmakers (congressman George Miller in particular) to reform the system. Abramoff's lobbying efforts to keep the CNMI popular and productive netted his law firm some $6.7 million over six years, from 1995 to 2001.

Eventually, changing world conditions meant the business owners would take their money elsewhere; the factories closed down, the little island commonwealth was that much more economically depressed--and here we see the fruits of capitalism run amok, free of accountability and responsible regulation. Gibney as much as says it in this picture--what happened to the CNMI was a foretaste of things to come, on a far larger scale.

Gibney takes much of his information from Peter Stones' Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of America, and let's not pretend for a moment that either book or documentary is in any way impartial--when Gibney lists the lawmakers that either profited from or accepted vacation trips from Abramoff, you mostly saw the initial "R" next to their names (to his credit, Gibney does mention a few Democrats, and even Senator Harry Reid as at one point being involved). Objective or not, it's difficult not to see this as one of the Grand Ole Partie's less proud moments--even President George W. Bush makes a cameo appearance here, there, and not in an especially edifying manner.

Gibney doesn't have the plain-folks showmanship of Michael Moore, but he does score a filmmaking point or two: a shot of the law firm Greenberg Traurig's main office, the lenses expanding the building's girth to signify its expanding income, thanks to Abramoff's efforts; a harrowing tale related by an aide of George Miller, where a CNMI garments worker makes the congressman a startling offer in exchange for enough money to go home; excerpts from Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), intercut to show the contrast between James Stewart's haggard idealism and Abramoff's buffoonish avarice.

Gibney in the movie's final segment tries too hard to tie all all this to the 2008 economic collapse; Abramoff was a symptom of what was wrong--one of its more bizarre symptoms--but the collapse itself is a larger story that needs its own documentary (or documentary series, if you like. He really needed to keep his focus on his main subject. Gibney does have one more bizarro trump card up his sleeve--we are given Tom DeLay's ultimate fate in a series of titles, and learn that he has since appeared in Dancing with the Stars; the end credits roll against footage of DeLay hot-stepping with a gorgeous partner half his age in the show. You know--he's not bad; not bad at all.

First published in Businessworld. 4.14.11


2 comments:

reanaclaire said...

hi.. I am looking for movie and entertainment blogs to write reviews, hope you can drop me an email so that I can furnish you with more details.

reanact(at)gmail.com

Thanks
Claire

Noel Vera said...

Not sure what you mean...can you furnish a few details now?

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