“Money Machine” — a documentary about a mass shooting, money, police cover-ups and political opportunism — has a lot of pithy summations of its setting, “Sin City.”
Las Vegas is “a town that knows how to make things disappear — money, people…”
“The fix has always been in, in Vegas!”
But my favorite has to be this, pronounced without irony in a film that’s a scattered, ad hominen swipe at everything the Oct. 1, 2017 murder of 58 people and wounding of some 800 more exposed about the gambling mecca in Nevada desert.
“Greed is what’s RUINING Las Vegas!” There’s a news flash.
Editor turned director Ramsey Denison’s brisk, neon-lurid film is his second (“What Happened in Vegas”) on Las Vegas’s problematic police force. Here, he gives allegations and accusations equal weight to proven lies and hard evidence of police cowardice and cover-ups and the crushing influence of Big Gambling Money on a rushed investigation into the Oct. 1, 2017 “Route 91 (Harvest Festival) Shooting” or “Mandalay Bay Massacre.”
Denison interviews surviving victims of the tragedy, journalists, local eyewitnesses and activists, a firearms acoustics expert, retired cops and other investigators in telling the story of that night. Some 22,000 fans at an outdoor country music concert were terrorized by a rich, heavily-armed gambler/retiree who’d smuggled over 20 guns into a hotel room at the MGM-owned Mandalay Bay.
Locals give a quick history of Vegas, from its mob beginnings to the “theme park/family friendly” it got in the ’80s. Tourism figures are thrown around, nightly gambling profits sketched in.
And then that horrible night happens. Much of the first act of “Money Machine” is about the slaughter, viewed through cell phone cameras, live-feed video, CCTV security cams and even police body cams as the Las Vegas Metropolitan P.D. responded.
Then, we start to hear about the rush to judgement, the haste with which “terrorism” was ruled out and a “lone wolf” theory pushed front and center. Even the F.B.I., these interview subjects say, was hasty in leaping past all the police calls to other “active shooter” scenes and memories of those who survived, many of whom swear there must have been two or three shooters.
“Vegas is BACK and open for business” seemed to be the governing ethos. Even the finished report of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history is lightweight and perfunctory compared to the exhaustive one prepared after Florida’s Parkland High School shooting.
As the film progresses, we start picking up explanations for that. Sheriff Joe Lombardo was running for re-election. No, he doesn’t want it to get out that he had a cop, then several cops, “cowering” outside the Mandalay Bay hotel room where Stephen Paddock was raining bullets down on concert goers from his “sniper’s nest.” No, he doesn’t want to explain the department-wide rush in orders (heard, and seen here) to “turn your (body) camera off” on that active incident, and later crime scene investigation.
Political opportunists abound, from the sheriff and the mayor to a “grandstanding” candidate for governor (not the actual governor) who got himself on the dais for every press conference in the days after the tragedy.
Lombardo and now-Governor Steve Sisolak even set up the “Vegas Strong” charity, intended to help the victims, in those early hours. The money? Apparently it didn’t get to many victims.
Reporters gripe at the sheriff’s high-handedness, defensiveness and obvious kowtowing to the big companies (MGM and Caesar’s own most Vegas casino-resorts). Victims are seen protesting even as the city is seen “moving on” from the tragedy in record time.
Ugly as that might seem, nothing about any of that behavior feels surprising or out of character.
The Mandalay Bay’s alarmingly slack security? Awful, but not shocking. Likewise, MGM’s decision to sue the victims of the shooting to avoid paying for their incompetence is a terrible thing. It’s just that little about Vegas has the capacity to shock any more.
But with all these interviews, Denison doesn’t land or appear to even try to interview the sheriff (a near-certain turn-down), the governor, the mayor or higher-ups with MGM resorts. He even got Paddock’s laughs-too-quickly brother to talk about how “smart” and “pissed off” at the big gambling resorts the shooter was.
In this case, Eric Paddock is what counts as “a contrary voice.” Because Paddock’s appearance in the opening act foreshadows what’s coming in the third act.
Spoiler alert — the “multiple shooters” theory is knocked down by a parade of faces and voices, which is why “Money Machine” abandons that over-developed thread after the first act.
The documented multiple missteps by the police grow large in the light of the conspiracy-minded. And the unsavory way the city “remembers” the tragedy — by “forgetting” too quickly and moving the “memory garden” memorial to it SEVEN MILES out of town — is awful PR and callous in the extreme.
But what were you expecting?
The town comes off terribly in the film, so much so that the film’s COVID19 coda feels Biblical in its judgement. The mayor (Carolyn Goodman) who earns only passing disdain in the first hour is held up to well-deserved scorn for her tone-deaf response the pandemic shutdown. Everybody who watches cable news got a bellyful of who that heartless harpy really works for.
Yes, money runs a tourist and gambling town. Yes, corporations like to avoid accepting financial blame for blunders. Yes, lawyers “fighting for victims” are in it for the money.
But as damning or at least unsavory as the many new allegations, accusations and (near) admissions of wrongdoing or negligence are, one question hangs over the entire “Money Machine” enterprise.
If we’re not shocked, why is the filmmaker?
MPAA Rating: unrated, scenes of violence, profanity
Credits: Written and directed by Ramsey Denison. A Sin City Cinema release.
Running time: 1:25