Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Posted on May 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to mob hit
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, ethnic slurs
Date Released to Theaters: May 7, 2010

As print media crumbles and broadcast and cable media splinters, documentaries have become one of the most thorough and dependable formats for delivering long-form journalism. From the acid (in both metaphorical senses of the word)-tinged advocacy of Michael Moore and his imitators to the more straightforward, even-handed work of Irena Salina and Joe Berlinger, see-it-now, show-it-don’t-tell-it films, more widely available than ever before online and through Netflix, literally bring these stories home. Alex Gibney, whose brilliant work on “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (about interrogation abuses in Iran), once again uses one disaster to illuminate more fundamental structural flaws with “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”

The Jack Abramoff story is epic, even operatic, a classic story of the rise and fall of an ambitious man with a tragic flaw. He was an idealistic young man who became first corrupted and then a corrupter. It has the satisfying arc of a feature film (and is set to be one, with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff), but it is far more than a rise-and-fall or even a catch-the-crook film. It is entertaining but it is also a sober and sobering depiction that focuses less on the failures of the individuals than the failures of the system that did more than let it happen. This film argues that corruption is inevitable.

Abramoff was a college Republican whose passion and ability to attract supporters — political and financial — quickly brought him to the attention of party leaders. At some point, he surrendered principle to greed. He took more than $25 million in lobbying fees. And then what he didn’t keep he paid out illegally. Gibney does an excellent job of making a complicated story both clear and engrossing. He is even-handed, allowing participants like former Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pled guilty to corruption charges and spent 17 months in prison, and Neil Volz, his former chief of staff, to tell their own stories.

The stories are shocking. I don’t know which is worse, how much money was taken from the unsuspecting clients, mostly Indian tribes, or how little it took to get crucial support from key members of Congress. A golf outing, a free dinner, a $25,000 contribution could mean hundreds of millions of dollars from casino revenue, especially if the competition could be shut out. Sweatshops on Saipan were characterized as free enterprise. Favors were traded. Abramoff dubbed appropriations committee the called “the favor factory” and he was very good at finding ever more pockets to stuff favors in. He was also very good at creating more pockets of his own for receiving money. Ultimately, his office set up a phony think tank to receive contributions in excess of the money given to them for lobbying. It was run by a lifeguard out of a house on the beach. Needless to say, no thinking went on.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, invalidating much of John McCain’s campaign finance reforms and making it possible for unlimited corporate lobbying and other political expenditures — much of it undisclosed — makes this film even more timely and even more terrifying. Jack Abramoff will get out of prison at the end of this year and come back to a world filled with new opportunities.

Related Tags:


Documentary Movies -- format

Interview: Former Congressman Bob Ney of ‘Casino Jack’

Posted on May 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Bob Ney was a powerful Congressman (R-Ohio) brought down — and sent to jail — by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He is featured in “Casino Jack,” the new documentary about what happened. He now has a daily show on talk radio. He spoke to me about his decision to cooperate with the film and what he has learned.
Was this a chance for you to tell your side? Is that why you agreed to participate?
At first, I said I wasn’t going to do it. When I got out of what I call the Bush Housing Program, the federal prison at Morgantown, I had a lot of offers to do different shows and said no to them all, including this. And then I looked at Alex Gibney’s work, the Enron movie and “Taxi to the Dark Side.” I had lived in Iran and in Saudi Arabia and it’s a painful story, but it needed to be told. I met Zena Barakat and agreed to do the IFC story she wanted me to do. She told me Neil Votlz was going to do this film and that it was going to be more than the story of Abramoff, about what’s going on now, where does this lead. So, I think it’s a way for me to give back and second it’s a way of healing for myself and third, hopefully something will come out of it to make some changes.
What kind of change would make a difference? Public financing of elections? Is that the only way to keep the corrupting influence of political contributions out of government?
I didn’t before I resigned from Congress, and I chaired House Administration and oversaw election law. I thought we just needed full transparency. Then we get caught up in the waylay of “if you don’t go to Scotland,” “if you don’t eat at Jack’s restaurant,” the problem is solved. The swamp is drained. But the swamp was drained and re-filled. There’s a lot of good people on the Hill in both parties and I’ve been treated better than I deserve to be. But a lot hasn’t changed. Maybe on the surface it has changed. Maybe nobody’s been indicted. But that doesn’t mean the system has changed. There are still quotas, money from the leaders, more money than ever, and John McCain’s reforms made no difference. It leads me to the thought that there’s got to be something better. We can take care of the ethics, but the money flow is different, and I would now lean toward some type of public financing.
What are you proudest of from your time in Congress?
The help America Vote Act with Stenny Hoyer made it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Some of the housing initiatives I worked on with Maxine Waters, I’m proudest of that. And we tried to make the Capital a better place to be. We tried to make it safe and secure, a better working environment, following 9/11 and the anthrax, secure and safe but still usable.
Tell me about Jack Abramoff and what his motivations were, his judgment.
I think he was very idealistic. He got waylaid somewhere along the line as can happen to anyone. He had a chameleon-like appeal. He was the kind of guy where you had to watch what you had to say in front of him, an Orthodox Jew, so you wouldn’t suspect he would go too far with things. I think he believes some of the things were very justified, people tend to do that. “I’m doing this and that on the Hill, very important things, so certain things are okay.” In his mind I’m not sure that to this day he might not believe he did many things wrong.
That was a shocker. The fact of his religious nature, what he had in his heart, with his faith, he was always involved with some kind of charity. When I saw some of the emails, I thought, “Oh, my God,” that was a shocker.
People might think that a political contribution can make a representative change a vote, but that isn’t the way it works, is it?
In this business, whether it’s Jack Abramoff or the people currently on the Hill, it’s a buying of access. Is there a buying of a vote? There was not one time when Neil or Jack and I exchanged a “I’ll do that and you do this.” If there was, I would have been charged with bribery. That’s when you have $90,000 cash in your freezer. I’m not saying what I did was right. But he didn’t buy my vote with a dinner. There’s a buying of access, though. It goes in multiples. Leaders of both parties give money to members. They’ll say, “You’re really causing a lot of heartburn for us. Those guys have been good to us, help us out.” And you think, “I want to be a committee chairman.” I’ve got to get re-elected. He could help me raise $100,000. If you don’t go along, you might not get that help or they could give it to your opponent. Lobbyists don’t buy votes, but they buy access.
One of the most troubling parts of the movie is when you put statements into the Congressional record in support of SunCruz and critical of its original owner, Gus Boulis, at the request of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon, onetime communications director for Congressman Tom Delay. It was a favor to someone who gave you a $10,000 contribution.
Neil and I talked, and Scanlon came to Neil. Though Jack badmouthed Scanlon all the time. I didn’t think they were even friends. We had no idea how entangled they were. They wanted something in the Congressional Record. We read it. So what? We put it in there. The Attorney General of Florida bad-mouthed Boulis. So we put it in there. We put it in again when Boulis stepped out.
I had no idea that Abramoff was using that to try to leverage something. I don’t think Neil did either. I trusted him. But we were dumb enough to do it twice. This is the biggest criticism I have of myself. I should have said, “What the hell is going on? Something doesn’t smell right. Something doesn’t feel right.” And then we read Boulis had been shot and killed. I was furious! Neil was furious. What are we into?
What can we do about the corrupting effect of money in politics?
A corporation is not a citizen. The Citizens United decision went too far. But I never liked the John McCain approach, come on. But McCain was touchy about his Keating problem and was going to clean the system up. If he had that problem today I’d have been keeping my bunk at Morgantown warm for him. Citizens United could be an opportunity for the Hill to make some changes but maybe not. They might close a loophole, but they have to keep their campaigns going.
Who are the most significant sources of money in politics?
Financial services is a very powerful group. I’ll give Pharma credit. When they buy access they buy it lock, stock, and barrel. Congress, the Senate, the White House, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor. They get to them all.

Related Tags:


THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik