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Alex Gibney: Casino Jack and the United States of Money: An Interview

05/11/2010 10:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The more Jane Rosenthal quipped, they had renamed the Tribeca Film Festival for the Oscar winning documentarian Alex Gibney, the less her words felt like a joke. The prolific Gibney made My Trip to Al Qaeda, the untitled Eliot Spitzer, and a segment of the closing night Freakonomics, all huge hits at Tribeca. As if these historic, epic scaled entertainments weren't enough, he just released another signature documentary probe, Casino Jack: The United States of Money, about scandalous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. After seeing Fiddler on the Roof as a boy, Abramoff became a religious Jew, and had a fling with filmmaking. He is currently and famously in jail. As with all of Gibney's work from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to his film-in-progress about Eliot Spitzer, his movies entertain by examining and provoking our sense of discomfort with the Zeitgeist. Thinking of him as the historian of our time, I sat down with Alex Gibney in the offices of Magnolia Pictures on April 20.

RW: When you made Taxi to the Dark Side, you were also editing your film about Hunter S. Thompson, finding comic relief in the iconic writer's story as compared with the grim tale of torture in Bahrain prison? Similarly, was there comic relief to balance Casino Jack?

AG: The comic relief was in the film. The lifeguard-an American international global organization is actually run by a lifeguard, Dave Grosh, who is shucking oysters and a yoga instructor. Grosh said to me in an interview, 'I am not qualified to run a Baskin Robbins, much less an international operation.' Not to mention Jack's filmmaking career, or Tom Delay on Dancing With the Stars. That was the appeal of this film, that it was deadly serious and wildly funny.

RW: Were there any interviews that were hard to get?

AG: They were all hard to get. With every project I start out on, there's no footage. It's always a big slog to find the footage and we did--stuff that nobody has ever seen before. It's easy to get armchair analysts to talk, but to get people on the inside to talk is very, very hard. That's why the film took over 3 years to make. We had to put it aside while we waited for people to get out of prison, and decide whether or not to talk to us.

RW: Who was hardest to get?

AG: Bob Ney, Adam Kadim, and Sue Schmidt were reluctant to be interviewed right off the bat. Some of the folks in the Marianas. That was one of my most productive and riskiest trips. We were going a long way not knowing who would be willing to talk. And we got a few to talk that really made a difference.

RW: That sequence was hilarious.

AG: And desperately sad at the same time: That guy who talks to Congressman Miller to ask if he would buy his kidney so he could go back to China. The hilarity of those trips: It's like Neverland: the snorkeling is great, the golf is great, the drinks are great. You can go see strip shows, hookers, and then you take a 15 minute tour of a sweat shop and report that everything is fine.

RW: What were some of the surprises you found out about Jack Abramoff and his world?

AG: We track his career as a young zealot, coming up as a young ideologue with Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. One of the stunts they pulled was this right wing Woodstock in Angola, going over there with the contras. It was a known episode but nobody had any footage. We finally found a man in London who had been a cameraman for CBS at the time who had 20 hours. That makes for a fantastic sequence, both the immediacy of it and the absolute insanity of it. These guys joining hands and singing the equivalent of "Kumbayah."

RW: Given the difficulties, what drew you to this subject?

The story is so wild, so outrageous, so much fun, so darkly analytical about a fundamental problem in American democracy; we are allowing congressmen and senators to be bought and sold like sneakers. And everyone will protest, 'no, this isn't so; there is no quid quo pro.' It is true. Even if on any particular bill someone votes against the contributor, at the end of the day the process is so dehumanizing, and it goes both ways. Corporations will say every week, 'we get shaken down by congressmen and lawmakers,' and now we are paying congressman and senators to raise money. The Jack Abramoff story shows us how bad that policy is, really not about the lobbyist. Jack Abramoff was a vehicle for something that was bigger than him and that was money. That is the conclusion that the movie reaches: Is he a bad apple or evidence of a rotten barrel?

RW: In Taxi to the Dark Side, you interview your father. Does this film reflect lessons he taught you?

AG: My father passed on to me the idea of being relentlessly curious. When I interviewed him for Taxi, he was close to his death, but even then he was so attuned to what was going on around him, his sense of determined curiosity is what he passed on. In the Abramoff story I thought, you know, I don't really know enough about my own government, I am not sure that any of us knows how the government really works. We are all cynical about it, but we don't really know. It is like going into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and seeing how the sausage gets made.

RW: What do you want people to get out of this film?

AG: I want them to be entertained. But I want them to develop a righteous anger about how much money is perverting our democracy. If we don't get angry it is going to get worse. A lot of purse conscious Republicans should get angry about how money is thrown around in Washington. Congressmen and senators are being greased.

RW: Are you indicting the Democrats?

AG: The Jack Abramoff scandal is a Republican scandal. Chuck Schumer, a dyed in the wool liberal, is an unbelievable shill, campaigning for things that are deeply undemocratic-i.e. the Hedge Fund loophole. Firemen and teachers pay a tax rate of 25% or 30 %. Hedge fund managers worth hundreds of millions of dollars pay 15%. Why? Chuck Schumer has become their protector and every time somebody takes that unfair loophole away, he kills it in the Senate because he and his pack are getting hundreds of millions of dollars. It's obscene. We didn't have time to get into Schumer in the film but there is a clue there that it is not just Republicans. I never met him. By all accounts he is a nice guy. That's another thing I learned from doing these films: everybody's nice. But that doesn't mean he hasn't done something deeply corrupt. Schumer will defend his decision, well I'm from NY and Wall St. is NY. So I would say, what about firemen and teachers, why should they pay double? It makes my blood boil.

RW: You are showing an untitled Spitzer documentary. Is there a connection between questions raised about government, politics, and money in Jack's story with Eliot Spitzer?

AG: The Spitzer story is more complicated. Unlike Casino Jack, there's no easy prescriptive answer to Eliot Spitzer, but I was interested in him as a character, in his rise and his fall. He is one of the few who understands the political economy, the wicked games that are played in the financial community, and he knew how to get tough. The SEC wasn't doing it. I admire him.

After the scandal happened, everybody was talking about it; still is, because it cuts very deep. How do we choose our public officials? What do we need them for? What about relations between men and women? How do we parse that? Spitzer is not the only powerful man who was unfaithful to his wife, but it was a spectacular moment because the way he presented himself he was so unlikely a character a candidate for using prostitutes. He prosecuted people for having done the same.

There's no doubt that his enemies were gleeful. That's part of the film, the political blood sport. And al ot of the people who went after him, as with Clinton, were guilty of the same or similar crimes. Eliot Spitzer didn't corner the market on hypocrisy.

RW: What about the other films that are part of this year's Tribeca Film Festival?

AG: My Trip to Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright's journey into the Middle East shows the threat that we face, the threat that we are becoming more like the terrorists than we imagine.

Freakonomics is about corruption. The subject of my segment is sumo wrestling. I love the spectacle of these huge men in loin clothes, but there's something this subject has to say about corruption in human behavior. As a filmmaker, shooting those sumo wrestlers is fantastic.

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