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]