If you're not really familiar with what, exactly, Jack Abramoff did and why he was convicted (taking many prominent Republicans down with him), "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is a helluva good start to explaining the rise and fall of Washington's most powerful Republican lobbyist.
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room", "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson") glosses over quite a bit to keep the complex story flowing smoothly (he mentions Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy aka CREA* only in passing) but still leaves out large, meaty chunks. What he sacrifices in detail, he makes up in digestibility. Even hewing to the bare facts, it's an awful lot to absorb.
He asks the question: Was it really more idealistic in the past, or was it always this bad? He never quite answers his own question.
Salon writer Thomas Frank ("What's the Matter With Kansas", "The Wrecking Crew") is one of the counterpoints throughout the film, as is convicted Rep. Bob Ney and Neil Volz, Ney's former chief of staff.
Volz, who went to prison, seems clearly regretful for his part in Abramoff's legalized bribery. "He could talk a dog off a meat truck," he says of Abramoff. Volz also talks about the revolving door between Congress and the lobby shops, and how easy it is to get caught up in chasing the money. "You forget why you came here," he says.
The film examines Abramoff's long-standing ties with Grover Norquist, Karl Rove and Ralph Reed from their days in the College Republican National Committee.
Volz's former boss Bob Ney is also seen in a candid interview, and comes off as relatively human - and bitter about the entire mess.
Tom DeLay, as you might expect, acts as if Abramoff's illegal acts were a total shock to him - even though we know they couldn't be.
Reporter Shawn Martin, a writer for the Lake Charles American Press, points out that members of Congress are so obsessed with getting campaign contributions, "They're willing to risk their careers for $25,000, or $50,000, or a golf trip."
Abramoff refused to go on-camera for this film, although he did take part in several interviews. It would have been more than a little interesting to hear how he feels about his achievements now.
In the bigger picture, "Casino Jack" makes the most powerful argument yet for public campaign financing, and of course we watch it knowing that the same kind of big-money lobbying that allowed sex slavery to thrive in the Marianas Islands also allowed the regulatory breakdown that is now polluting the entire Gulf of Mexico.
This documentary is a clarion call to get money the hell out of politics.
* Via Mary Beth Williams at Wampum, whose investigative work on Abramoff was used without attribution by many, many people:
Throughout its short but controversial existence (CREA was highly implicated in the Abramoff scandal, which is how I discovered it), CREA's central mission, despite purportedly being a 501(c)3, was to undermine the environmental credentials of high-profile Democrats, particularly Al Gore, and later, John Kerry. It accomplished this mostly through paid media, ads buys in major newspapers and on TV. How it paid for those high-priced ads is still a mystery, as CREA consistently claimed on its filings with the IRS that, outside of a three-month period in the summer of 2000 where it raked in $121K+, including $10,000 from Koch, it claimed it had no income. The half-million dollars from Abramoff tribal clients has yet to be declared, as well as any proceeds from the numerous fundraisers hosted by Julie Finley, the queen bee of Republican Washington society.
Groups like CEI, CREA, the Cato Institute (also Koch funded) and the National Center for Public Policy Research (also a laundry for Abramoff money) all began a non-stop brutal campaign, managed by Grover Norquist and Karl Rove, on VP Al Gore, a campaign aimed at cementing public doubt regarding Gore's superb environmental credentials. The effort worked so well, that Gore's own campaign advisors purportedly urged him not to focus on his green record.