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Movie review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money

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Given the general attention-deficit disorder that afflicts the public - when they pay attention to the news long enough for anything substantial to register - the information packed into Alex Gibney's crisply overwhelming indictment of Republican business-as-usual - Casino Jack and the United States of Money - should come as a surprise and a shock to much of the electorate.

That is, providing they actually go to a theater to see it (or rent it when it goes to DVD or watch it when it shows up on TV). I highly recommend this movie - and I have little faith that the audience that most needs to see a film as intelligent, searing and provocative as this one would actually make the effort to seek it out.

I'd go so far as to call this the most important political film since Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. And the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

In clear, concise and infuriatingly thorough detail, Gibney tells the story of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s - and the consequent metastasis of power into influence-peddling, bribery and general wrong-doing, spear-headed by greedy, grasping, conniving super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Unfortunately, when I described the film to several friends and acquaintances after I saw it at Sundance in January, I was disheartened by the number of people who stopped me to say, "Jack who?"

Jack Abramoff - and shame on anyone who considers themselves to be attuned to what's been happening politically in the past 10 years who doesn't know his name. As Gibney's film illustrates, Abramoff was a self-promoting conservative hustler who figured out how to transform his lobbying practice into the stacked-deck kind of backroom shenanigans that many people assume is the basis of all government.

A nationally known leader of the college Republicans, Abramoff quickly turned his efforts to lobbying, gradually building a reputation as the guy who had the juice. He lobbied on behalf of everything from Chinese sweatshops to Indian tribes (which proved his undoing, when he tried to play both sides against the middle).

As the film shows, Abramoff was a master at greasing the skids with gifts, lavish travel, expensive meals - and with cashing in on the needs of others. With the Indian tribes, he landed one tribe as clients to help them hold on to their casino license - then bled the tribe that was challenging for that license by promising to lobby for their effort as well.

He understood the mutual back-scratching needs of Washington: Businessman A has money, which Politician B needs for his reelection campaign. Politician B has the capability of pushing Businessman A's cause - deregulation, regulation, whatever. Let's make a deal - with Jack Abramoff in the middle, skimming his profit off the top.

Abramoff mastered the art of insinuating himself into powerful circles and became the go-to guy for anyone who wanted the ear of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Eventually, he was also providing a similar service to the Bush White House through Karl Rove, offering skybox tickets to the Washington Redskins, or meals at his lavish restaurant in Washington ("Liberal portions at conservative prices!").

Before long, the cause took a backseat to the money. Abramoff and his partners in crime had found a way to bring in big bucks by promising everything - without necessarily having to deliver. He just had to show he tried.

A movie buff and L.A. native who wanted to produce movies, Abramoff seemed to see himself as a larger-than-life, above-the-law figure. As someone says about him in the film, "He believed the rules don't apply because the cause is so important."

But when the cause is lining your own pocket, of gaining and maintaining influence, of keeping your friends in power so they can funnel business and cash to you - which cause is it exactly that is so important that you can ignore the law?

This review continues on my website.