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Casino Jack (A Movie Review)

Casino Jack

Casino Jack


Starring Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle LeFevre, Maury Chaykin, Yannick Bisson, Eric Schweig, Christian Campbell, Spencer Garrett and Graham Greene.

Screenplay by Norman Snider.

Directed by George Hickenlooper.

Distributed by ATO Pictures.  108 minutes.  Rated R.

The scandals and crimes of the George W. Bush administration have made for fertile ground in the movies.  Beyond the documentaries – of which there are many – or even the fictionalized parables such as Rendition, The Manchurian Candidate, etc. (let’s face it, most thrillers these days have a shadowy Halliburton-esque corporation in the background), we are now seeing serious dramatizations of actual historical events.

First there was Oliver Stone’s W, about the life of the former White House dweller.  Then HBO made the wonderful black comedy Recount, looking at the questionable Florida vote count in the 2000 Bush-Gore election which handed the Presidency to Bush.  Most recently Fair Game took an in-depth look at the Valerie Plame spy scandal.  And that’s not even taking into account the films about the war in Iraq or the September 11th films.

Now comes Casino Jack, a surprisingly funny look at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff – who essentially became the poster child for Republican excess and corruption.

Abramoff had just been the subject of a documentary – the similarly titled Casino Jack and the United States of Money by acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney.  It’s a fascinating story, full of greed, hubris, sex, money, mob connections and politics.

George Hickenlooper, the late writer-director of Casino Jack (who suddenly passed away at age 47 in October just as the promotion of this film was getting geared up) also got his start in documentaries – including the acclaimed show biz doc Hearts of Darkness – before changing over to feature films like Factory Girl and The Man from Elysian Fields.

However, Hickenlooper has decided not to go the dry, documentary route in telling this tale.  Abramoff’s story is told as a quirky, arch comedy of errors and greed.

This comes from Hickenlooper’s personal interactions with the disgraced lobbyist in prison.  The director quickly learned how his subject was able to gain such access and success in seducing the movers and shakers in government.  Turns out that Abramoff, unlike the evil wraith he was portrayed as in the media, was actually an extremely charming and funny man.

Hickenlooper realized that while he was rather appalled by Abramoff’s actions, he kind of liked the guy and his story – far from being a bunch of dull backroom deals it was actually an over-the-top, stranger-than-fiction tale of greed and hubris.

Therefore, Casino Jack tells the story in an offbeat way, telling a serious story in a somewhat comical way.

The film has a coup in casting Kevin Spacey as Abramoff (ironically, this is Spacey’s second movie about the Bush administration, he also starred in Recount).  This kind of sly, charming scoundrel is just up Spacey’s alley and he nails the role, making Jack Abramoff both slimy and seductive in equal measure.

Casino Jack shows the dark side of the conservative revolution of the early 2000s, showing how money and power can corrupt a person without them completely realizing.  Ethics were such a fluid concept for Abramoff that you never really know if he realizes what he is doing is wrong.

Abramoff almost seems to be doing the political equivalent of a Ponzi Scheme – gaining untold wealth and influence while doing very little to actually earn it.  Most of his clients were Indian tribes, all of which he was ripping off blatantly.

In the meantime he was sharing cigars with the Tom DeLays and Karl Roves of the world.  Interestingly, for a man who was one of the major faces of the Republican Party during the Bush 44 administration, Abramoff apparently felt serious disdain for Bush and to this day insists that Clinton was a much better President.  However, Abramoff was embraced by the leadership – until he was caught and completely cut off.

Of course it was not all politics.  There are also mob hits, gambling, gourmet food, beach lifeguards and violent assaults with ball point pens.

All of this stuff is so over the top that it would be unbelievable if it weren’t true.  But it is true, and all the more fascinating for it.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: December 17, 2010.

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