Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I'd warn you not to confuse this feature film starring Kevin Spacey for the Alex Gibney-directed documentary CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY, which came out early in 2010, but I don't think there's any chance of that happening. The documentary is an intricately researched, wonderfully edited, and thoughtfully told story about super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (played in the feature by Spacey), who, during the Bush Administration practically invented new ways to bilk clients out of millions of dollars in fees for essentially doing nothing. Along with his apprentice/partner in crime Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), he also fortified the pipeline that funneled cash from special interest groups to members of Congress, and didn't think twice about it. The doc is a stinging indictment of influence peddling, while the feature, CASINO JACK, is more of a spectacle, emphasizing only the most outrageous things Abramoff and his team did, rather than really dig down to the more underhanded, quiet brand of sleaze he got his hands into.
CASINO JACK bounces from K Street offices in Washington D.C. to sweat shops in Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands to tribal gambling operations to the halls of government and lawmaking on Capitol Hill, never quite telling the full story or even highlighting the most dramatic, disgusting aspects of its subject's dealings. And it spends too much time on nonsense, such as his using members of organized crime (here represented by Jon Lovitz as a blundering mob-contacted associate and Maury Chaykin as a character known as "Big Tony"--give me a break) to do his bidding on occasion.
What is far more interesting (and covered much better in the doc) are Abramoff's convincing members of Congress to ignore human rights violations in certain Southeast Asian nations so they can trade cheap goods in the U.S. Even more fascinating is how devoted a husband, father, and Jew he was, while still managing to be a colossal scumbag in the public sector. His wife Pam (Kelly Preston) is barely noticed in CASINO JACK.
The only part of Abramoff's many sins that gets the attention it deserves is his treatment of the Native Americans, including two leaders played by the great Graham Greene and Eric Schweig. In various emails and texts between him and Scanlon, Abramoff essentially buried himself and guaranteed he was going to jail (he was just released in the last month to a halfway house). Spacey does his best at attempting to see inside the mind and capture the often outlandish behavior of someone who is both an expert at lying to others and also does a pretty remarkable job of living in a self-delusional world. Spacey and the director, the late George Hickenlooper (HEARTS OF DARKNESS; FACTORY GIRL), don't do a particular strong job (especially compared to the documentary) connecting all the dots between Abramoff, Sen. Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), and the Bush Administration, but even without the easy comparison, CASINO JACK feels like we're skating over Abramoff's life and career rather than doing some real digging to make the film a genuine character study.
I can't say I ever saw Jack Abramoff working behind the scenes to scam his clients, but I don't think he did so quite in the same manner as Spacey portrays him. In the public eye, Abramoff was confident but in a subdued way. In CASINO JACK he's a wild man with expensive tastes and zero sense of how deep into financial ruin he was driving himself, his family and his company (he didn't really care about his clients). Spacey's version and the Abramoff I've actually seen in footage don't jive. It's like Spacey read a book on how to play a wheeler-dealer and just went with it. He's a gifted actor, but I can see him trying here, and it's distracting. Pepper's young turk of a sidekick, Scanlon, is far more layered and interesting character. Again, I have no idea what the man was truly like, but at least Pepper seems to be dialing back the frat-boy persona to give us something underneath to façade. The film made me almost more interested in Scanlon than Abramoff.
CASINO JACK is a disappointing failure, and in the halls of cinema history, it will be logged in as a footnote to the much better documentary. I do believe true-life stories are the toughest to get correct. When it happens, you get THE SOCIAL NETWORK; when it falters, you get CASINO JACK. And, no, I'm not here to argue whether one is more accurate in terms of the facts or not. That's not the point. Compelling cinema based on a true story is it's own creature, whether the facts are 100 percent right or not. CASINO JACK's biggest crime is missing prime opportunities to make fictionalized drama out of some pretty horrendous behavior on the part of Abramoff and his cronies. And that's unforgivable.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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