Notorious swindler Bernie Madoff may have his own biopic about excess, corruption and greed, Madoff: Made off with America, coming to theaters soon, but disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff still has him beat. Abramoff ’s tale of hubris and deviousness has been the subject of no fewer than two films released in the past year. The latest, Casino Jack, a full-length feature directed by the late George Hickenlooper, hit theaters last December after debuting at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. The fictional account, starring two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey along with Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz, follows last May’s release of Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s similarly titled documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Hickenlooper’s film offers all the glitz and gloss one would expect from a Hollywood dramatization, but if you saw Gibney’s documentary last spring (or read the C&E review in the June 2010 issue), you can safely skip the new film. Substantively, Casino Jack provides little information that is new or explained better than it was in the Gibney documentary. That said, if you’re an aficionado of lobbyists gone bad, a scandal-movie junkie, or simply a Spacey fan, you will not be disappointed.
While some of the supporting performances, notably Lovitz’s as a mattress salesman turned Abramoff partner in casino-financing crime, are noteworthy, Spacey is the film’s main attraction. He masterfully inhabits the role of the larger-than-life lobbyist, whom he visited in federal prison along with Hickenlooper while preparing for the role. Before his death last October from an accidental painkiller overdose, Hickenlooper recalled thinking Spacey “might have struck an emotional chord within himself and within Jack [during the meeting]—a similar enough note that might make this vilified, Washington bad guy a palatable figure to portray as a kind of empathetic anti-hero.” Indeed, Spacey presents a nuanced and layered portrait of the “Don Corleone of D.C.,” but in the end, Abramoff and his sidekicks, Michael Scanlon (played by Pepper) and Adam Kidan (played by Lovitz), remain loathsome as they plot, scheme and conspire to bribe lawmakers and dupe Indian tribes with casino interests out of millions of dollars.
On the whole, the film is entertaining and even funny at times, though the humor can feel a bit forced as there is nothing inherently comical about the story. The comedy provides a welcome respite at some moments, but it mostly distracts from the gravity and seriousness of the subject matter.
Casino Jack is essentially a story about the extreme negative end of behavior in American politics. Lest the account cast doubt on lobbyists and politicos writ large, it is important to remember that money and its influence need not necessarily be a corrosive force in politics. It is routinely put to good use, helping to inform, mobilize and communicate with voters in increasingly complex social and media milieus. Still, maintaining high ethical standards via campaign finance and lobbying regulations and adopting a zero-tolerance policy for abuse are essential to sustaining the public’s confidence. Justice ultimately prevails in the film—as it did in real life—and at a time of resolutions and new beginnings, that is a useful reminder.
Mark Ruggiero is a freelance writer who resides in New York.