It's a tragedy that director George Hickenlooper didn't live to see the release of his film, Casino Jack. It's both great fun and strong filmmaking, encapsulating the hubris and self-aggrandizement that marked the career of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Think of Casino Jack as a companion piece to Alex Gibney's documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. See Hickenlooper's film to get a dramatized, telescoped version of Abramoff's rocket-ride to the top -- then find Gibney's doc to get the whole backstory. They're both important reminders of what American political culture was during the Bush years -- and, unfortunately, what it continues to be.
Hickenlooper's film stars Kevin Spacey as Abramoff (though Spacey is probably 10 years too old for the role), captured at the point when Abramoff, a right-wing zealot and orthodox Jew, was reaching his peak of power. Abramoff was best buddies with now-disgraced and convicted former Congressman Tom DeLay and had ties to Karl Rove and George W. Bush, when they were making the White House their own little clubhouse.
In the film, Abramoff is coming off a major win, getting Congress to give favorable trade status to the Marianas Islands, essentially sanctioning sweatshop conditions for child labor. Even as he and his right-wing buddies -- Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and others -- exult in their ability to rake in lobbying bucks for providing high-level access to clients, Abramoff is thinking bigger.
He sells his services to an Indian tribe that's looking for bigger casino profits, telling them he can ensure that a rival tribe won't get a competing casino license. At the same time, he's selling his services to the rival tribe, promising he'll work to get them the license they seek. And he and his partner, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), are gouging both tribes and laughing all the way to the bank.
But Abramoff is nothing if not grandiose. He has plans to build his own Hebrew school - and starts by buying a Zamboni for the ice rink to be. To cover his costs, he works a shady deal to help one of his firm's clients, a shifty operator in Florida who runs a cruise ship that takes cruises to nowhere. They float out beyond the borders and have gambling and other vices onboard.
But Abramoff's choice of partners is always slightly sketchy. In this case, he picks Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), a mobbed-up owner of a discount mattress operation, to be his front man. Eventually, it all catches up with him -- and he winds up on the wrong end of a grand jury and, finally, in jail.
Hickenlooper, working from a script by Norman Snider, plays this for rueful laughter. Abramoff is as brazen as possible, glad-handing and otherwise blowing smoke to get business, bullying when he can, wheedling when he can't. Spacey plays him with a brash energy that fits the character of a guy who believes that doing the Lord's work includes lining his own pockets.
There's surprisingly broad comedy between Spacey and Lovitz as the mattress salesman, a whiny weasel who always knows just the wrong thing to say. Together, Spacey and Pepper capture the sense of entitlement, the hypocrisy and greed disguised as patriotism that marked Abramoff's dealings. Kelly Preston, as Abramoff's wife, is the perfect political spouse, kept in the dark, worrying about money but willing to believe Abramoff's blandishments that everything is going to be OK.
Casino Jack, unfortunately, arrives after the midterm election; it might have served to remind people just who it was that drove the economy into the ground by playing a constant me-first game. Still, it's surprisingly funny and entertaining, though it leaves a bitter taste, given what has happened in the past six months or so.