Casino Jack (Canada, 2010)December 15, 2010
Casino Jack (originally called Bagman), George Hickenlooper's dramatization of the rise and fall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, can be succinctly summarized this way: the straightforward narrative provides a platform for a powerhouse performance by Kevin Spacey. Indeed, Casino Jack is all about Spacey, who has been keeping a low profile for the better part of a decade, making occasional but unremarkable appearances. He roars back in Casino Jack, digging his teeth into Abramoff with the tenacity of a pit bull going after a slab of raw meat. The initial scene, in which Spacey snarls a monologue at an image of himself in the bathroom mirror, is strangely reminiscent of the opening of Patton - uncompromising and full of profanity-laden, quotable lines. Later in the film, Spacey has an Al Pacino/And Justice for All moment.
The release of Casino Jack is timely, even though many of the events covered in the movie took place nearly a decade ago. Abramoff was released from his halfway house on December 4, ending a prison term. His cohort, Michael Scanlon, who cooperated with the government, is due to be sentenced on December 21. These two occurrences have provided Casino Jack with substantial free publicity, helping people remember a name they probably haven't heard in about five years, when Abramoff stopped being a nightly news staple.
Casino Jack is more concerned with the building blocks of Abramoff's fall than it is about how he amassed his immense network of Washington contacts and came to wield as much (or more) influence than any other man in his profession. As Abramoff remarks in a voiceover, influence is the most important currency in Washington - more valuable even than breathable air. Someone with influence can get anything they want - or so Abramoff believes.
The film focuses on two of Abramoff's most egregious acts of wrongdoing. With the help of Scanlon (Barry Pepper), he orchestrates a scheme by which he defrauds a group of Native Americans out of millions of dollars after being hired to lobby for their casinos. With Scanlon and small-time shyster businessman Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), he gains a partial interest in a line of casino cruises after sending a fake wire transfer for $23 million. In reality, these incidents were only the "tip of the iceberg," so to speak, but the film limits its scope in order to maintain a reasonable running length. A more full catalog of Abramoff's misdeeds can be found in Alex Gibney's recent documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
With Casino Jack, Hickenlooper has two primary goals: to develop Abramoff into a more complex individual than a newsreel caricature and to illustrate how, in the culture of Washington, anyone and anything is for sale. Lobbyists are paid to provide access and to exert influence for their benefit of their clients. It's a situation ripe for corruption; Abramoff's activities were not that unusual for those in his profession. His error was to take things to extremes and to exhibit arrogance. With all of his contacts - one of whom was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Spencer Garret) - he believed himself to be untouchable. By the time he learned otherwise, after Scanlon's angry girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre) went to the FBI, it was too late to accomplish more than damage control. Still, a prison term of a mere four years seems remarkably lenient.
If Norman Snider's screenplay and Hickenlooper's direction provide the template for dramatizing Abramoff as more than a greedy villain who exploited a corrupt system, Kevin Spacey's performance puts the muscle and flesh on the skeleton. Spacey's portrayal is intense and, while Abramoff doesn't come across as looking good, he is what one might reasonably expect from a Type A personality immersed in this culture. He sees what's coming to him as being his due since his actions are providing tangible windfalls for his clients and for the congressmen he lobbies. He has philanthropic interests and loves his family. He does not fool around with women and cautions Scanlon about his indiscretions. Spacey's Abramoff is never a phony. His hubris does not allow for that. When he takes the Fifth in front of a Senate subcommittee on Indian Affairs, he does so with reluctance because he views not talking as an act of cowardice. Those who question him reek of hypocrisy, as he delights in pointing out. Spacey's performance tilts toward showiness, but that's often a hallmark of powerful acting. It keeps us interested in a character whose life details will be familiar to a majority of those who seek out the film.
This is Hickenlooper's final feature (he died about two months before its theatrical release) and one of his best. Whether the viewer knows Abramoff's story or not, its depiction is strong enough to hold one's interest. Casino Jack also represents another tile in the ever-growing cinematic mosaic depicting how rotten the foundations of U.S. government have become. It also makes a strong companion piece to Gibney's documentary, which offers a documentary portrait of the same events. Above all, however, Kevin Spacey is the reason to see Casino Jack. This movie will stand alongside The Usual Suspects and American Beauty as examples of what the actor is capable of accomplishing when he is properly motivated.
Casino Jack (Canada, 2010)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre, Graham Greene, Spencer Garret, Jeff Pustil
Screenplay: Norman Snider
Cinematography: Adam Swica
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: ATO Pictures