Casino Jack Abramoff Hits the Big Screen


Alex Gibney has a thing for money-hungry rogues. The documentary film director first made a splash with 2005's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, adapted from a book of the same title by a pair of Fortune magazine writers. Now comes Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney's latest release. It examines the murky, sometimes illicit dealings of super lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his boldfaced clients, ranging from the government of a largely impoverished island in South East Asia to tribes of Native Americans determined to cash out from the lucrative casino business.

In both cases Abramoff and the Enron guys made many, many millions of dollars by initially exploiting legal loopholes. Enron turned an oil pipeline company into a hedge-fund; Abramoff pressured unsophisticated clients into making big contributions to Abramoff-approved entities. "What's similar between Abramoff [and Enron's] Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay is how they dealt with clients and investors," Gibney told DailyFinance. "They'd go into somebody's office and basically say, 'If you're not smart enough to figure this out, I'm not going to explain it.' They were arrogant, but that kind of arrogance created demand. Abramoff would tell people that he won't haggle over numbers, and then he'd send them invoices that simply stated 'for services rendered.'"

The film examines -- through interviews and archival footage -- how Abramoff was, in some ways, not so different from other lobbyists thriving on Capitol Hill. Still, he stood out for his flamboyance, outrageousness, creativity, and greed. Ultimately he was a victim of his success in squeezing kickbacks out of clients. "What brought Jack down was everybody getting so jealous that they started leaking stuff about him," says Gibney. "The same thing is happening right now on Wall Street. You don't think that the SEC just stumbled upon Goldman Sachs's transactions, do you?"

Abramoff and Enron and Flexible Morals

Other links between Abramoff and Goldman executives include the brazenness of their actions and the paper trails they curiously failed to hide. In both instances there is much crowing about hitting it big at the expense of clients. The email trail helped Gibney illustrate Abramoff's shrewdness. "Jack kept very careful track of his emails, and he took on different personae based on who he was writing to," recalls Gibney. The director says that it kept Abramoff aware of the tone he needed to maintain in order to achieve maximum impact. "The emails became a beautiful record, but they also did him in." As for the masterminds behind the Enron scandal, Gibney notes that audio tapes of phone calls proved even more damning: "They howled with laughter at the people who were in misery."

Smartest Guys and Casino Jack have left Gibney -- and his audiences -- enlightened about how flexible people can be with their morals, particularly when money is at stake. "Economic man is not rational; he is a rationalizer," philosophizes Gibney. "As you start to do things that cross the line, you rationalize your behavior. People at Enron thought they were creating a better market-based world for people to live in. That blinded them to their own corruption, one crime at a time. Jack was on a mission to take over the government and shrink it down so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub. He rationalized things by telling his clients to send scads of money to the Republican Party."

Freakonomics in the Wings

Gibney's next project is a segment within the film version of the best-selling book,Freakonomics; other directors contributing pieces include Morgan Spurlock and Seth Gordon. Gibney's part looks at corruption inside the sport of sumo wresting -- clearly he has not yet tired of chronicling the misdeeds of scoundrels. Despite the bombed Broadway version of the Enron story, he believes that American audiences maintain an appetite for the dark side of business. "People enjoy watching the card-shark doing his magic, but they also want to watch the mother****** getting put away," says Gibney. "Stories of injustice burn people up."

The same could be said of Gibney's subjects, though they are steamed for entirely different reasons. Though Abramoff and Skilling refused to talk on camera, Skilling did share an opinion away from the lens. Out of sheer curiosity, after Smartest Guys had been nominated for an Academy Award, Gibney attended a few days of the Enron trial. "Inside the court room, Jeff Skilling walked right up to me," remembers Gibney. "He had a sh**-eating grin on his face, and he said, 'Congratulations.' The sarcasm was not lost on me. I said, 'Thank you.' Then his wife stepped up and intervened. I think she was afraid that he would take a swing at me."