A K Street hot shot gets his due
by Jared Peterson
For the sheer absurdity of its twists, turns and spectacular errors, a film about the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff would almost have to be a comedy. By now we’re quite familiar with the slimy muck that sloshes around many halls of power. Casino Jack, which stars Kevin Spacey as the disgraced lobbyist, grabs a pail and runs with it, straining at times to find the funny in the muddy waters that stretch between K Street and Capitol Hill.
From the mid-‘90s, Abramoff was a political superstar, lobbying Congress on behalf of huge special interests and brokering the backroom deals that keep the wheels of Washington thoroughly greased. In a sly, conspiratorial voiceover, Jack provides us with a primer of the machine’s inner workings: the complimentary skyboxes, the luxurious “fact-finding missions”, the weighty envelopes slipped from suit pocket to suit pocket. It gets confusing, quickly—money is hard to follow, even with a guide. But we get his gist: influence is power, and Jack is powerful. Of course, he doesn’t see himself as the middleman, delivering payoffs to politicians in exchange for legislative favors. He’s that kid you played Monopoly with, the one who’s not only good at the game but who also insists on handling the play money and passing out the hotels and houses.
As the title suggests, Casino Jack focuses on Abramoff’s dealings with the gambling industry. Jack’s downhill tumble begins when he and his protégé, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), push hard to land contracts with Native American tribes looking to build casinos. Then they pocket more than their fair share of the exorbitant fees, and casually double deal and screw over their clients. Abramoff also teams up with a sleazy acquaintance (Jon Lovitz) with mob ties to buy a shady “floating casino” cruise line, committing fraud to try to seal the deal. In this case, in his increasingly reckless attempts to make a buck Jack unwittingly foments a grudge match that ends in a Mafia-style murder.
Casino Jack clearly and justifiably equates the lobbyist’s trade with the excesses of the Wall Street tycoons of the ‘80s. (Scanlon, apparently without irony, even sports the slicked-back Gordon Gekko mane.) But the film takes pains to show that Abramoff thinks somewhat bigger than “Greed is good.” He is a dedicated conservative philanthropist, stirred to action by notions of freedom and exceptionalism. He is also a devout Orthodox Jew, driven toward an almost Biblical grandeur in his work and life. He is guided by his principles, but misguided as well—in one of his oddest and most telling moves, Jack proudly displays the Zamboni resurfacing machine he has bought for a hockey rink he hasn’t built for private school he has yet to establish.
In the end, Abramoff’s passions are self-aggrandizing, his actions steeped in melodrama. Prepping himself for his hearing, he justifies himself to an imaginary grand jury: “I will not let my family be slaves. I will not let the world I touch be vanilla.” That these two outsized sentiments come in such stern, bitter tones—and in the same breath—shows how far he has sunk into self-involvement and delusion. In his frenetic hubris, he puts the cart before the horse, the Zamboni before the ice and himself on a pedestal.
Kevin Spacey, as he does, has thrown himself into the role of Big Jack, and his intensity and sense of play make it hard to hate a guy we’re pretty sure we hate. Those who have enjoyed Spacey’s guest spots on “Saturday Night Live” will be treated again to his amazing talent for celebrity impersonations (something he and his subject apparently share). The director, the late George Hickenlooper, has made biopics (Factory Girl) as well as straight documentaries (Hearts of Darkness). Of course, Abramoff’s story is nowhere as tragic as Edie Sedgwick’s or as intense as Francis Ford Coppola’s. But his approach here is attentive and atmospheric—he switches up camera angles and film stocks, hovering below a table to spy on the backroom wrangling or bathing things in stark black and white like newsprint photo come to life. As it should be, since even to Jack—with his movie quotes and photo-ops and grand gestures—his life was always a volatile mix of fact and fiction.
Casino Jack is rated R. There are a couple of shocking acts of violence, including a traditional mafia hit and a protracted stabbing with a ballpoint pen. (Ick.) Some characters engage in extramarital affairs, employ escorts (who do appear nude) or enjoy the gyrations of lingerie-clad ladies. Casual cultural insensitivity rears its head, directed toward Native Americans and, obliquely, toward Jews. There is regular drinking and some drug use. Profanity is pervasive and includes f-bombs and, in a rap song on the soundtrack, the n-word. With its combination of adult material and elaborate political maneuvers, this probably isn’t one for the kids.