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Black Jack

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Jack Abramoff was a movie guy. The swagger; the big dreams; the restaurants; the silver-tongued philanthropy--a "you talkin' ta me" film quote machine that printed box office sums of money for the Republican party almost as fast the newspapers of the world printed stories about him.

As Kevin Spacey's Jack Abramoff puts it, in the late George Hickenlooper's Casino Jack, Washington, DC is just "Hollywood with ugly faces," and he behaves accordingly. It's the same game of money and influence played out on a larger stage, so he relies on lines from movies and television shows to justify his actions or trivialize the complaints of those around him.

But there are important differences between the games of money and influence played on opposite coasts. To paraphrase Nietzsche, whereas Hollywood's products are primarily concerned with the garrison in your head--what one thinks, believes or feels--Hollywood East is actually concerned with who controls the garrison itself. People may suffer gross public humiliation or die on-screen based on the decisions of studio, television and media executives--but real people live and actually die all over the world as a consequence of the lines delivered by the actors that staff our nation's government.

Which is what made the real Abramoff's rule-breaking so particularly heinous and why publicized rule-breaking--served daily, at both our West and East locations--is so heavily punished in the Washington power corps. Thirteen days before Casino Jack will open nationwide, the real Jack Abramoff will be released from prison: will he have learned his lesson?

Sitting through last night's screening at the AFI Fest 2010 presented by Audi, I couldn't help but remember my own time working in Washington, DC. In 2004, I was a Koch Summer Fellow, working busily as a publicity intern, cranking up the volume on the Republican noise machine as best I could. My right-of-center days were already waning, what with my support for marriage equality and all. My Arianna moment came very soon thereafter; I learned where I really stood and, for the most part until now, I've never looked back.

Still, at the time it was hard not to get lost in the heady feeling of unending power that pervaded conservative-occupied DC the summer before Abramoff was publicly stripped of his new clothes. It's a feeling Hickenlooper's film mostly captures as I experienced it: Grover Norquist, holding forth at a cocktail reception for young conservative idealists, as we swayed back and forth and cheered; private lunches and dinners in conservative members-only dining rooms; senate hearings and, yes, a few public shouting matches with liberal counterparts. Power is ephemeral, never concrete and steadfast, and when a person or a group of people have it, it is easy to understand why they abuse it-- and why they have trouble letting go of it.

One of the measures of any self-identified democracy is whether power can be transferred gracefully between competing interests. This is a skill rarely taught and less frequently practiced out here in the free-market creative Wild West that is Hollywood. Here, the game is knife or be knifed. Ask any agent's assistant whether they would trust a fellow assistant to actually do them a favor. Probably not. But even if they can be trusted, compelling someone to act is an arduous process; resistance is common, barriers must be broken and, often, reputations are shattered. The logic seems to be, why cooperate when you can just lose everything? After all, you may win everything too.

Which is why Abramoff was, really, a movie guy. The rules didn't matter to him; breaking all of them was the only way he felt he could get to the top and leave a lasting mark. Spacey's incredible performance shows us a man who, even in the face of 30 million (and counting) documented failures, cannot let go, who petulantly bounces in his chair as he tries desperately to cling to an ectoplasm that has already floated out of the room. It's practically Eisner-esque--or Ovitz-esque, if you prefer.

So, he suffers a particularly Hollywood ending. "It's like we're starring in our own movie," Spacey says as the sharp edges of the flashing lights begin to cut him down to size, ripping from his hands the cards he overplayed. It's a fate known well to those of us whose electorate votes with dollars and not punch cards: despite making some of the most memorable films ever released, Mel Gibson can't even book a cameo.

But in the movie of Abramoff's life, what happens next? Like Hollywood, DC loves a comeback when it takes on a new and interesting form: Tom DeLay became a Dancing star, Sarah Palin developed an appreciation for tea and Oliver North became a television show host. In the thirteen days between when the real Abramoff becomes a free man and the highly entertaining Casino Jack is released, we will begin to find out what role the public will allow him to play in consideration of his sins.