Aficionados of Washington political corruption should enjoy Alex Gibney's new film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the latest chapter in the unending saga of those who come to Washington intent on doing good, soon focus instead on doing well and ultimately end up doing time. The focus is on Jack Abramoff who became rich and infamous by linking clients -- charged fees exceeding their sophistication -- with Republican incumbents who enjoyed good times and campaign contributions and were amenable to doing favors for their new friends who met these needs.
The clients - U.S. Indian casinos and clothing factories in the Mariana Islands--were working to maintain special privileges provided by American law--offering gambling where it is otherwise barred or being allowed to import products labeled made in the USA without complying with stateside labor laws. Both businesses can be quite lucrative and are perennially near the bottom of the Congressional and public agendas, maximizing the opportunity to fiddle without detection from journalistic or reformer radar.
Ultimately the gamy schemes were brought down by exposure in the Washington Post, which was put onto the issues by unhappy competing lobbyists. When the dust cleared, the revolving door that had been making men rich as they spun from Congressional staff positions to posh K street offices was instead turning them into inmates.
The movie is compelling, partly because it doesn't pretend to be fair and balanced. Which means it's ultimately more entertaining than educational. It makes an overly aggressive reach when it tries to tag the economic problems of the moment - which are, unfortunately, bigger than the Republicans and ultimately bigger than the United States - to the lobbying efforts of Abramoff and his colleagues.
And it ignores the system's self-correcting tendencies. There's significance in the fact that nearly all the featured Republican Members of Congress charged with doing bad things are now former Members of Congress, while the sole Democrat featured, Rep. George Miller not only chairs the Education and Labor Committee but is among those closest to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Oddly, at the film's end, when the downward career trajectory of the featured villains is tracked, there's nothing about Miller's return to greater power than ever. The film cannot bring itself to acknowledge that the good guys (and Miller's definitely a good guy in my book) won--again.
Hovering awkwardly throughout this movie are scenes from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra 1939 classic featuring Jimmy Stewart as the newly-minted Senator who - successfully - bucks the corrupt Washington system. I fear many viewers won't get the reference or recall that truth ultimately prevailed in that film - just as it ultimately does in fact.
But it is important to distinguish between a return to business as usual and demanding that players observe the rules, which is what happened here, and actually changing the rules. Money still talks. The cynical and clever use of faux grassroots campaigns (called astroturf in the trade) where civilians are induced to join the debate in a misleading fashion to suggest a public interest in a parochial issue continues. In the film, members of the religious community who believe gambling is a sin campaign against the creation of new casinos, under the camouflaged sponsorship of existing casinos threatened by potential new competition.
The personalities change, but the ongoing tension between politics, which resembles a game, and governing, which is ultimately a process continues. Casino Jack was a colorful and corrupt character who clearly and regularly crossed the line. Celebrating his downfall is entertaining. Putting the spotlight on those who aspire to replace him would be both more challenging and useful.
That's a challenge that could and should, but likely won't, unite the Tea Party folks who are so offended by earmarks and liberals who feel that true health reforms were hijacked as well as their respective journalistic cronies.