And truthfully, you don’t need to see them both. If you saw Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” you know the parameters of the scandal, the sleazy connection between casino cash, The Christian Coalition and efforts to funnel money into the coffers of certain well-placed Congressmen.
But if you expect to make much out of “Casino Jack,” the faintly-fictionalized George Hickenlooper drama built around another epic turn by Kevin Spacey, you might want to give a quick look at the documentary. It’s hard to “follow the money” in the Spacey film, and if there’s anything Watergate taught us, that’s what you do when you’re figuring out a Washington scandal.
Spacey plays Abramoff as a ruthless operator with a Hollywood flair. This Abramoff wore his tailored suits and his arrogance as armor against his doubters. He is a supposed idealist who made deals with anti-Semites so he could bring Jewish schools and Jewish dining to Washington with his ill-gotten gains, a guy sensitive to Jewish slurs, but not above calling Native Americans “Tonto.”
The Hollywood flair comes in as we learn that Abramoff graduated from his days running the College Republicans to make a couple of awful Dolph Lundgren films. He quotes from “The Godfather” and any other movie that suits the situation, with the dazzling mimic Spacey channeling whatever star he needs to make the impersonation work.
Barry Pepper is Abramoff’s loose-cannon fellow lobbyist, the guy who figures out the best way to make a fortune is to find clients — Indian tribes running casinos — bully them by overcharging them and playing them off against other tribes that might want to open a casino close by their own. It’s a “high five” performance, movie shorthand for a character too “wired” to keep it together, always high-fiving his colleagues.
Hickenlooper (“Factory Girl”) makes great use of Washington locations and the whole film has the smell of the corridors of power. And long before Spacey’s Abramoff hisses, “I want you to call our friends at Fox News,” you know this isn’t going to be a movie that plays “fair and balanced” when the facts don’t back that up.
Abramoff is kept on at this firm and that one because of his connections to George W. Bush and other GOP heavy hitters. He bends Congress to his will, protecting sweatshops in the Marianas Islands, manipulating Congressional action on minimum wage laws. He takes Congressmen on golf junkets to Scotland. And he reacts to being fired as he sullies the reputation of first one firm and then another with volcanic displays of ego and temper.
“You’re either a big leaguer or you’re a slave, clawing his way onto the C-train.”
A tale that involves kickbacks, political favors and murder, the film is at its most confusing when it separates from Abramoff, showing us the Washington Post’s growing interest in his stature and his dealings, the over-extended lifestyle (Kelly Preston plays Mrs. Abramoff) Jack’s hustling has to cover and the nature of the hustles themselves. Far more entertaining is Spacey blowing up at his muddling, coke-addled partner, at the goofy lowlife (Jon Lovitz, perfect) brought in to be the public face for the SunCruz Casinos (renamed for the film) that Abramoff & Co. took over.
The movie introduces but does little with Abramoff’s lip-biting fury at the veiled anti-Semitism he feels from some of those he shares “prayer breakfasts” with, and mostly leaves out Ralph Reed out in revealing the scummy ways a Christian political action committee was misused to fight casinos that weren’t employing Abramoff as their lobbyist.
It’s a sordid tale and, in Gibney’s telling, a cautionary one. Hickenlooper, who died just as this film was about to come to theaters, throws caution to the wind. He heavy-handedly tried to make sense of it all and then conjured up a movie with “a Hollywood ending.” The trouble is, the Hollywood hustler Abramoff never actually provided one.
See for Yourself
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston
Director: George Hickenlooper
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language, some violence and brief nudity.