In Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles his most complicated subject yet: The corruption and abuse of power by lobbyists with access to the highest echelons in Washington, D.C.
The film's main protagonist is Jack Abramoff, the former high roller now serving four years after pleading guilty to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. But the movie cuts a much broader swath than just Abramoff's tale - already fiendishly complicated - reaching all the way back to the Nixon 1970s to lay out in scrupulous detail how the former champion weightlifter, College Republican National Committee chairman and occasional film producer (the Dolph Lundgren stinker Red Scorpion) was able to pull off his elaborate schemes in the public eye.
A critical flaw is the absence of Abramoff, who appears in copious C-SPAN and other vintage news clips but never before Gibney's camera to tell his side of the tale. (The filmmaker had access to him in prison, but the sit-downs were not filmed.) The movie places Abramoff's crimes - primarily his misappropriation of millions of dollars contributed by casinos owned by Native Americans - against a dauntingly complex backdrop involving the Conversative Christian Right, Chinese sweatshops, Karl Rove, former House majority leader Tom DeLay and various Democratic and Republican state representatives.
Gibney is a canny filmmaker who knows how to put together a flashy, entertaining picture. Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens with a re-creation of the assassination of Fort Lauderdale casino-boat owner Gus Boulis, which immediately seizes your attention. The picture is briskly edited, and the energy never lags. But the amount of information the viewer is asked to process is voluminous - and never stops coming. By the time Casino Jack has laid out its case, you'll understand a lot better how people like Abramoff can take flagrant advantage of the system for personal gain. But most viewers except hardcore political wonks will feel a little exhausted.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (**1/2 out of ****) opens Friday, May 21 at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade.