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CASINO JACK, 2010
Starring Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre, Maury Chaykin, Daniel Kash
The disastrous career of former Washington, D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff is represented in this political biopic that examines the multiple cases of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion that led to his conviction in a federal court.
Release Date: 17 December 2010 (USA)
“Everything is negotiable.” That is one of the taglines for George Hickenlooper’s final film, “Casino Jack”, which is based on the true events leading to Washingtonian lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s current incarceration in a federal prison. Everything, Mr. Hickenlooper, except death. The director died in his sleep on October 29th of an apparent heart attack while promoting the film in Denver.
As for Spacey, he plays the part with that same confident and arrogant swagger that made his performances so memorable in “Swimming with Sharks” and “Glengarry Glenn Ross”. His portrayal of Abramoff is an egotistic and boisterous representation of the slick and deceitful businessman whose activities ultimately caused the resignations of Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
In 2006, Abramoff pled guilty in federal court to three felony charges related to defrauding American Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars and corrupting public officials in Congress with illegal gift-giving. In addition to filling their pockets with multimillion-dollar profits, he and his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) set up a foundation to finance golf trips to Scotland for politicians as well as Abramoff’s colleagues. In return, lawmakers like Ney would agree to push legislation Abramoff’s way in order to benefit his tribal clients and their casinos and blackjack game. DeLay accumulated more funds directly from the lobbyist than any other member of Congress.
And this is not a shocking story, particularly for anyone familiar with the money-laundering schemes that are so typical in Washington. Like Alex Gibney’s documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”, Hickenlooper’s movie focuses on Abramoff’s uncanny abilities to influence legislators with money and expensive gifts. But the story gets even darker with Abramoff’s involvement with the purchase of SunCruz cruise line casinos, “cruises to nowhere”, which transported passengers into international waters beyond the reach of federal and state gambling laws.
For this endeavor, Abramoff enlisted former H.W. Bush campaigner Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz, in perfect sleeze) as a figurehead for the gambling vessels. Since ethics rules within Abramoff’s firm prohibited him from representing as both buyer and seller in the deal, he had to hide behind Kidan while using his political connections to support the deal in Washington. This is where Ney dirtied his hands by aiding Abramoff’s efforts in the House on several occasions.
The sail of this ship got even rockier when Kidan and former SunCruz owner Konstantinos Boulis (Daniel Kash) clashed over allegations regarding missing payments. Boulis alleged that Kidan has associations with organized crime and was shot to death in February 2001. You can connect the dots yourself to draw Boulis’ chalk outline.
In essence, “Casino Jack” is a dizzying epic of dirty politics. It is yet another depiction of White America screwing the Native Americans out of what was rightfully theirs. And Spacey glad-handles every character in the film, including his wife Pam (Kelly Preston) with empty promises and spot-on celebrity impersonations. In ways comparable to Woody Harrelson’s remarkable portrayal of Larry Flynnt, Spacey personifies Abramoff’s endless greed with nuances that are not favorable, but nonetheless pointedly accurate. He is basically a puppet master who uses one hand to entertain his audience members, while the other one searches their back pockets.
Barry Pepper (the sniper from “Saving Private Ryan”) delivers a breakthrough performance as Scanlon, whose reckless lust for young women obliterated their precarious house of cards. The film does not infer that Abramoff’s shell games are abnormal or unusual in the corrupt arena of American politics. However, it does imply that Abramoff would have likely gotten away with these ventures had it not been for the careless nature of his business partners. To put it in gambling terms, the lobbyist simply crapped out when he was on winning streak, even though he was rolling with loaded dice.
Hickenlooper’s family can be proud that the director embraced the divisive subject of fraudulent business and back scratching politics for his final picture. The content of “Casino Jack” may not be surprising to those familiar with the unethical conduct of Washingtonian lobbyists. But Spacey and Pepper succeed in making this film entertaining, as it is educational in its depiction of American corruption.