You need to see this movie. You need to see it not just from an historical perspective of hypocrisy laid bare, but as a cautionary tale of mistaking that hypocrisy for ideology. Of course, the sad fact is that you probably won’t see Casino Jack and the United States of Money. It’s a documentary. Even though it’s from Alex Gibney—maker of two of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent years, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)—it’s still a documentary and, traditionally, those do poorly at the box office. Worse, those most in need of seeing it have probably written it off sight-unseen as “left-wing propaganda.” The problem is that Gibney’s harder to dismiss than Michael Moore. (The questions arise: Is it really liberal propaganda? Or are there simply a lot of people out there determined to continue to believe whatever they currently believe?)
Of course, not being Michael Moore has its downside, too. Gibney has yet to make a film with anywhere near the box office of Fahrenheit 9/11, so it might be argued that respectability isn’t everything. The truth is that Gibney’s films are not as dry as might be supposed. His films aren’t buffoonish in the way Moore’s films often are, but they’re not without wit and entertainment value. There’s much in Casino Jack that is very entertaining and bitterly funny. There’s also much in it that is infuriating, appalling and scary. These are both strengths, but there’s also a weakness to the film in that there’s just too damn much of it. The film would profit greatly by losing at least 20 minutes of its running time. That should not put you off the movie—its story of Jack Abramoff and the whole “College Republican” movement is still compelling viewing.
While Abramoff is at the center of the film, Gibney’s net is spread much wider—and I don’t simply mean that it ensnares Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed in the bargain (though it does). No, the film ambitiously undertakes the idea of following the whole “College Republican” movement, the hypocrisy hiding behind its chief ideologists (even perhaps hidden from themselves), and the price tag of their “free market” goals—a price that Gibney presents (and makes a case for) as creating the current financial situation in which we now find ourselves. Beyond that, he’s interested in looking at how corrupt the basics of the system had to become in order to allow all this to happen.
Abramoff and his associates are presented as originally idealistic. The trick to this particular breed of conservative ideologue was their utter lack of pragmatism. They weren’t interested in compromise. They were interested in complete control—what might be described as right-wing radicalism. But their particular ideology leant itself to a sense of entitlement, of having learned the rules less to reform the system than to milk it for their personal gain—even if this meant working against the very things they ostensibly believed in. Gibney charts this very carefully and presents a picture that deserves to be seen. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but it’s hard to deny his facts or the force of his argument. Rated R for some language.