Alex Gibney, Jack Abramoff and the Corruption of US Politics

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Alex Gibney does not believe in making small, personal documentaries. He pursues outsized figures and major political topics that shape our times. His prolific output includes serving as writer, director and producer on the Oscar-winning exploration of interrogation techniques in Iraq, Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as the indictment of corporate greed and malfeasance in the Oscar-nominated, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and a portrait of one of literary history’s great iconoclasts, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Gibney’s resume includes a Grammy, Emmy, Peabody and the DuPont Columbia Award. His other notable producer credits include No End in Sight, which laid out false assumptions given for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Martin Scorsese’s music series The Blues. His latest film details the larger-than-life, currently jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the financial impediments to true democracy in this country. It is called Casino Jack and the United States of Money and will be released nationally on May 7 from Magnolia Pictures.

But his doc on the lobbyist who helped funnel money to 210 members of Congress, 35 percent of them Democrats, posed more challenges than shooting footage in a war zone. The probes into Abramoff and his money machine eventually resulted in the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and an often cited photo seems to connect Abramoff with then President George W. Bush. But Gibney had to demonstrate his nonpartisan fairness of approach to an imprisoned former Washington insider.

Neil Volz, as a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Ohio congressman Bob Ney, from 1995 to 2002, testified to Team Abramoff’s use of lavish gifts, free trips and tickets to major sporting events, which resulted in both men, depicted as longtime friends, receiving jail sentences. Ney is also featured in Casino Jack, and Gibney feels the only reason Ney agreed to be on film was to have his say, after learning Volz confessed on camera.

Gibney’s challenges did not end there. Abramoff himself agreed to appear in the film. But Gibney was only allowed to talk with him and prevented from even taking in a pencil. Finally, the warden of the prison relented after a protracted battle with first amendment lawyers. Another complication arose when film director George Hickenlooper, planning a film called Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey, announced he had interviewed and filmed Abramoff no less than five times for research. Abramoff’s attorney then notified Gibney he would not be given the opportunity to shoot Abramoff for his doc, which began before Hickenlooper’s project.

“The Department of Justice, in a very heavy handed way, put a lot of pressure on Abramoff,” Gibney said. “And when you’re in prison, you’re in a very vulnerable position. They did not want him to be interviewed.”

Despite Abramoff’s going on record for a feature rather than a doc about his life, Gibney has not only made sense of the internecine flow of lobbying money during the time, but also he has captured the life of Abramoff without missing the bigger picture. “I don’t think Jack Abramoff was a rotten apple,” Gibney asserted. “I think he was spectacular evidence of a rotten barrel.”

Jack Abramoff was part of the process of lobbying in our nation’s capital, one that as of 2008 disperses $3,200,000,000 each year via more than 15,000 lobbyists to influence legislation. But Gibney’s portrait of Abramoff is one that suggests a true believer, a man whose commitment to his ideals took him to some very unique places in life.

Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills and was a record-setting high school wrestler. He became Chairman of the College Young Republican National Committee. In 1985, he got involved with Citizens for America (CFA), a group that raised funds for “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua. Abramoff supported brutal opposition leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Abramoff left CFA after being accused of mismanaging funds and found an appropriately related field as President of Regency Entertainment, where he produced the anti-Communist action film Red Scorpion with muscleman-turned-actor Dolph Lundgren.

In 1994, Abramoff began lobbying and as Gibney’s documentary shows, his manipulation of funds resulted in improper use of Indian gaming revenue, deals with shadowy Russian energy companies and in the most outlandish segment of the film, a foray into the commonwealth of the Northern Mariannas Islands. The latter project, which utilized DeLay, claimed that clothing manufactured in NMI was “made in the USA” due to a trade law loophole. The sweatshop atmosphere included female workers being paid a pittance and literally chained to their sewing machines.

Casino Jack staggers the imagination, for Abramoff also has a connection to the fraudulent purchase of a gambling boat enterprise. When owner Gus Boulis would not sell, he was shot to death. The film also details the less-than-holy trinity of Abramoff and archconservatives Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, and how they benefited from the cash that was generated.

Gibney does not believe that lobbying in itself is unjust. He sees political campaign finance reform as the linchpin for a more representational democracy. “Where it becomes a problem is this system of legalized bribery,” he said, a term that he has regularly used in the promotion of Casino Jack, “that we have in this country, which will only become worse now with the recent Supreme Court decision [equating financial contributions with free speech]. Because you have congressmen and senators who have to raise so much money that they have to spend two to three days out of every working week dialing for dollars or going to fundraisers. We’re paying them to raise money. We’re not paying them to govern any more.”

It’s no surprise that with a story and central character this complex, Gibney’s original cut was three hours and the one shown at the Sundance Film Festival, slightly over two hours, was edited again. Gibney understood that he was moving away from Abramoff’s personal story in a version of Casino Jack that followed a stunning tributary: Abramoff also fed money toward the Medicare Modernization Act, a huge subsidy paid by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to the federal government to prevent the latter from negotiating prices directly with drug manufacturers.

There is a limit, no matter how judicious a film’s construction, to audience comprehension. In the case of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney manages to entertain as well as enlighten, with humorous images of key lobbying figures appearing on slot machines and clips from films of yesteryear. But with current outrage about derivatives, bailouts for banks “too big to fail” and countries like Iceland and Greece teetering on the edge of insolvency, a hardened look at the effects of lobbying in the richest country on Earth can hopefully have an impact on issues like earmarks in legislation, more disclosure in lobbying and, as previously noted, the dysfunctional system of campaign finance. Jack Abramoff, scheduled to be released in a few months, is just one of the more interesting symptoms of a structural disease in American politics. “But then,” Gibney summarizes, “corruption happens when you believe so much in your essential goodness, that you think you can’t do anything bad.”

[Below: the currently incarcerated Jack Abramoff]

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George Carlin: Before and After

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The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.

“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say…” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.

That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.

George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM & AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.

I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”

George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”

The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.

I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.

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Errol Morris Doc “Reframes” Abu Ghraib

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I am sitting two feet away from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. He is screaming at me. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

Morris’s latest documentary feature, Standard Operating Procedure (released by Sony Pictures Classics and Participant Media in Los Angeles on May 2) is not just about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and its administration by the U.S. military. With the same trademark élan evident in The Fog of War, his Academy Award- winning doc on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morris’s S.O.P., which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, weaves together an overwhelming number of topical strands with remarkable clarity and artistry.

But it is the sentencing of seven soldiers–M.P.’s at Abu Ghraib–and the refusal of the military, US government and population at large to look beyond this “framing” of the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi detainees, that is the reason Morris, generally the most genial and polite of interview subjects, vented his frustration after a question of mine.

Specialist Sabrina Harman, as guard on the night shift for the 372nd M.P .Company, explains in S.O.P.  that she took photos not only of naked Iraqi prisoners but the dead body of a detainee named Manadel al-Jamadi, who was murdered after an interrogation by a CIA officer, whose name is known to the military. She insists the photos were not for perverse pleasure but because she felt compelled to document the repugnant activities in Abu Ghraib.

“Why wasn’t the CIA officer ever charged?” Morris shouted toward me with uncustomary vehemence. “Why was the only person ever threatened with imprisonment over the death of Al-Jamadi, why was it Sabrina, for taking a goddamn photograph that exposes the military, exposes a crime? To me it’s a metaphor for the whole goddamn war in Iraq.”

Among the interviewees, Morris surprisingly managed to capture on film six of the seven “bad apples” of the 372nd M.P., excluding Cpl. Charles Graner, responsible for arranging such disturbing, indelible images as an Iraqi with a hood standing on a box, with wires hanging off him or a pyramid of naked detainees. Graner received ten years, as the stiffest sentence of those charged, but S.O.P., upon careful scrutiny, points to culpability at higher levels.

For example, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, 800th M.P. Brigade, was eventually relieved of command and demoted by President George W. Bush. Morris selected clips of his 17 hours of interviews with Karpinski to reveal that Karpinski was responsible for rebuilding and running the entire, decimated prison system in Iraq. When she inspected Abu Ghraib, interrogation techniques used there were shielded from her view. Karpinski could not identify the staggering mix of civilian contract interrogators, CIA officers and, in military lexicon, O.G.A. (Other Governmental Agencies) going in and out of cells at the prison. Most damning of all, when Karpinski became aware of the systematic mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, she informed Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who promptly ordered her to do nothing. She became the highest-ranking scapegoat in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal and her onscreen gaze is suffused with cold resentment.

Morris’ collaborator on the book version of S.O.P, author and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, has stated that rather than wondering about finding a “smoking gun,” irrefutable evidence of the definitive culprit of Abu Ghraib, that “Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.” Morris opens his documentary by contextualizing the prison, which was emptied of all its prisoners in the Fall of 2002 by Saddam Hussein. Under US occupation, Abu Ghraib became the center of military intelligence, despite its legacy for torture and murder of prisoners under Saddam.

Conditions in the prison breached the Geneva Conventions. Military sweeps brought in detainees, often relatives of suspects, without any confirming intelligence. A prison population of 200 grew to an unmanageable 1500. Food was scarce and often contaminated. And in one of the most obvious abrogations of Geneva, Abu Ghraib was located in a war zone, within the bloody “Sunni Triangle,” where daily shelling of the prison made the psychological conditions inside even more volatile.

Photos were widely distributed electronically among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, beginning in October of 2003, which included images taken by Cpl. Graner of PFC Lynddie England and Specialist Megan Ambuhl, two women who posed with a naked, leashed prisoner called “Gus.” In a stunning parenthetical in this documentary, Morris delves into the fact that Graner was simultaneously having sexual relations with both England and Ambuhl, the latter now his wife.

Lieutenant-General Sanchez is not the only officer who escaped justice for a coverup. It was January 13, 2004, when Specialist Joseph Darby turned a CD of Abu Ghraib photos into the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. The result, as we learn in Morris’s work is this: Three days later, Colonel Thomas Pappas issued an amnesty for all military personnel who possessed the Abu Ghraib photos. In essence, this enabled the wholesale destruction of all evidence connected to the scandal.

Ironically, Spec. Harman had earlier attempted to disseminate the photos within the US media and with considerably lesser results. “You know, Sabrina burned a CD,” Morris explained. “Shortly after the death of al-Jamadi, she was sent back to the US on a leave. She tried to show the photographs to someone at CNN who didn’t really want to look at them.”

The evening I returned from the press roundtable with Morris, the news on television put S.O.P. into clearer perspective. The Associated Press revealed that a group within the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney, with the approval of Bush, labored to find legal justification for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques they knew to be objectionable and unacceptable under international law. Between 2002 and 2003, the Justice Department had issued several memos from its Office of Legal Counsel.

As I heard the news, I recalled Morris’s furious rhetorical question from just hours before: “How many torture memos does a government have to promulgate before you get the idea they might be interested in promulgating torture? How many? What would satisfy anybody?”

Morris mentioned that there have been 13 separate investigations on Abu Ghraib, what he refers to as “almost an investigative filibuster.” His reframing of the significance of those prison photos, those who took them and those who controlled how they were perceived, is a distillation of a million and a half words of interview transcript, along with thousands of pages of unredacted reports and about 270 photographs that shook the world but has left it materially unchanged.

“The photographs have stopped us from looking further and demanding answers,” Morris said, “almost as if we’ve gone into this state of shock and nothing more is needed. It’s a democracy still and I still have some residual faith in that democracy. And I believe that part of moving past the stain of Abu Ghraib is confronting what actually happened there. Not scapegoats but confronting what happened there.”

[S.O.P. producer Participant Media has created a social action network regarding human rights and the documentary, at www.takepart.com.]

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Cheney Shooting Sparks New GOP Amusement Park

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[Entertainment Today, Feb. 4, 2006]

After shooting Austin millionaire attorney Harry Whittington while hunting, Vice President Dick Cheney declared it “the worst day of my life.” Nevertheless, Cheney has rebounded from his suffering by announcing the building of a Republican-themed amusement park to open in the ravaged area around New Orleans.

The park, which aides claim the Vice President has no financial interest in, will be called “Cheneyland.”

The idea for the park grew out of a G.O.P. think tank after the unrelenting scrutiny of Cheney when he shot Whittington in the face and chest, thinking he was an oversized quail in an orange shirt.

The land for the park has already been purchased from the state of Louisiana, for pennies on the dollar, after Hurricane Katrina flattened homes in the area.

The Halliburton Company, a former employer of Cheney, is in charge of the construction of Cheneyland. A Halliburton spokesperson insists the Vice President will receive no compensation for facilitating a non-competitive bid. Halliburton won the bidding with an estimate of 26 billion dollars four days ago. Due to cost overruns, it estimated today the price will be 34 billion dollars.

Halliburton has contended that price is reasonable, based on the fact that Cheneyland will be built completely underground and fortified to take direct hits from nuclear missiles.

Under a new statute, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been granted the right to take private land after a disaster and resell it at any price, in an effort to cheer up devastated victims and fight the war on terrorism.

FEMA’s sale of the New Orleans Cheneyland site will mean that those predominantly African-American victims will have to find other places to live, despite many of them never receiving insurance compensation due them for their destroyed homes and businesses. Those whose dead bodies were never recovered will, if they lived on land earmarked for the park, be noted on a plaque in the entrance of Cheneyland.

On a happier note, the amusement park will feature a “Hunter’s Blind,” where those with even no gun experience will be able to shoot birds with clipped wings, hogs with their hind legs tied together and other unnaturally handicapped creatures, much like the birds Cheney attempted to shoot in place of Whittington’s face, while being driven around the South Texas ranch on February 12.

Also scheduled for construction will be the “How Much Will It Cost Now?” pavillion, where participants will learn how to create cost overruns in construction and military supplies and make it look like it is natural.

Also featured will be the “Do-It-Yourself Body Armor” competition, where paintball enthusiasts will have to lash together a variety of household items on their bodies for protection, prior to engaging in a battle to shoot the enemy with paint pellets from a rifle. Exhibits for children will include “Find the WMDs,” “I Spy a Spy with my Little Eye” and a booth for tasting crude oils from around the world.

Cheney, who is noted for his obsessive secrecy and distrust of the media, refused to talk about Cheneyland He said he might grant an interview to Brit Hume of Fox News Channel but nobody else. Furthermore, no journalists will ever be allowed into Cheneyland to review it.

However, to show compassion for those whose lives were disrupted in the Gulf Coast, Cheneyland will extend a ten percent discount to anyone who can prove he or she lost a house due to Hurricane Katrina.

Whittington, who has apologized profusely for getting his face and chest in the way of Cheney’s shotgun during the ranch shooting, has been named CEO and general manager of Cheneyland.

Surviving the Democratic Convention

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[Entertainment Today, Sept. 1, 2000]

After living through the Democratic National Convention at the Staples Arena and hearing too much about the final episode of CBS-TV’s Survivor, I have come up with a plan to get Americans more involved in the political process.

It’s a reality show called Political Survivor. Nine people with no press credentials have to get into a convention in a strange city with hordes of police and demonstrators attempting to halt them.

Ah, hell, it will never work. It could only run in sweeps every four years.

Let us leave behind the manufactured wilderness of the network TV island that is Survivor for a convention which prepared for 50,000 protesters and never alleviated its police presence despite the no-shows.

I will admit that having the oh-so-appropriately-named Rage Against the Machine playing in a fenced-in concrete bowl right outside Staples is not the best in civic planning. MacArthur Park or Pershing Square would have been better choices. And the Black Bloc do not, uh, strike me as coherent political demonstrators. But come on: fourteen minutes to disperse a crowd of 8000 through a narrow gate and firing rubber bullets and pepper spray because of a couple dozen anrachists who want to smash the state and hate still living with their parents?

I’ve always felt policing is not just deployment, it is psychology. When Los Angeles spends nearly as much time psychologically training officers as paramilitarily doing so, we will all be better off.

Once inside Staples or the Media Center, you are struck by the conglomeration of delegates, press, VIPs and celebs. One can see anyone from Cokie Roberts to Jello Biafra to The Rock and some female wrestler named Chyna who looks like a transsexual who has still not made a decision.

It was Arash Markazi, though, who really impressed me. An Iranian-American journalist for the Web, he told me that those in his profession in Iran, when they are too critical of the government, are arrested and shot. No trial. No lawyer. Many journalists there have their families live at a secret location, so that the government will not be able to execute them as well. Arash can never go home.

I met Arash on Day One, when Bill Clinton held the Arena in thrall with what has to be one of the most powerful speeches of his career. Regardless of your politics, his oratory is remarkable, sometimes bringing his voice to a mesmerizing, amplified hush. A commanding performance, though he notably was circumspect in praising Al Gore. This may well have been a distancing strategy, considering the President’s detractors.

Other impressions:

The video of Clinton walking through a hallway toward the stage, with titles describing his accomplishments, shot looking up, brilliantly manipulative.

Tipper Gore dancing like a drunken Boris Yeltsin to “Turn the Beat Around.”

A touching video tribute to Jimmy Carter, in attendance, who, when asked what he’d like his legacy to be, simply stated, “Peace and human rights would be preferable.”

After the surreal yet beautifiul cascades of balloons and confetti, viewed from the Upper Concourse, I descended to the human river overflowing the banks of the lobby downstairs, trying to get out, limited by closed exits.

I looked to my left and there was Peter Jennings.

“Gosh, Peter,” I smiled, “I thought for sure they would provide you guys with a helicopter to get out of here.”

“Not even for the Vice President,” our finest news anchor smiled.

I told him when I was a boy, I once watched him reporting from Beirut during their civil war. While he was filing his story, a rocket exploded into the building behind him. He never turned or stopped, just continued filing.

Jennings’s eyes widened with memory. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. Then, self-effacingly, he admitted, “I was frightened out of my mind.”

“But you didn’t show it,” I complimented him. “And that’s what mattered.”

Outside, as I took my first gulp of tepid L.A. night air, I thought about fear, about showing it when appropriate. And when you fear for your country, you should show it by demonstrating. Demonstrating and voting. Oh, yes, and writing.