I walked into Casino Jack , directed by the late George Hickenlooper (he just passed away in October 2010), thinking it would be a straightforward retelling of the Jack Abrahamoff story, disgraced lobbyist, and the events and people caught in his web. Double Academy-Award winner Kevin Spacey was playing Jack, so I knew he’d be charismatic and charming.
But a strange thing happened. I wanted to hate Jack on principle: I’m a progressive, he’s a Republican lobbyist with no morals who was instrumental in the Florida recount and the smearing of John McCain in South Carolina during the 2000 campaign for Republican nominee. I believe lobbying is bribery writ large; Abramoff is the super lobbyist.
But I couldn’t. The way Spacey played Abramoff, he was sympathetic even at his wormiest—wheeling and dealing with the Native American tribes about casinos they wanted to build (hence the name) while he was ripping them off at jacked-up prices. Spacey starts off the movie in front of a mirror telling himself what’s really important: that he’s Jack Abramoff and he works out every day. The script, by Norman Snider, turned Abramoff from a headline into flesh-and-blood, however corrupt.
The movie shows the wreckage Abramoff left behind, embodied by Barry Sprague (Graham Greene), a highly respected Native American eminence who was steamrolled by Jack when he got in the way of his huge fees. But Jack never wavered in his belief that he provided access to power and greased the wheels of our democracy. He was doing God’s work.
Both Jack and Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), his protege with even less of a conscience than his mentor, had good women with sense. Jack’s wife Pam (Kelly Preston) questioned him about late mortgage payments while he’s building an empire of restaurants (kosher and non), orthodox school for boys and buying a floating casino. Michael’s fiancé Emily (Rachelle Lefevre) was appalled when Michael bought a run-down DuPont mansion. She also marched decisively into FBI headquarters armed with details on their schemes when she found out Michael was cheating on her.
The floating casino deal brings in Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan, who was a laugh riot as the owner of a bankrupt mattress company. Nothing fazes him except getting attacked with a ball point pen while being strangled. Watch him as he complains to Jack about his boredom while in a Miami hotel room with hot babes strewn about in their undies.
The movie’s farcical tone increases as Jack finds out that Lovitz had the Greek owner of the floating casino whacked while he shepherds one of his tribes through the White House to meet with the president. He also finds out his right-hand man Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper) spilled the beans of their entire crooked operation to his fiancée because they “were going to be married,” as Scanlon cries his eyes out in the back of a limo.
Of course, the empire Abramoff built came crashing down and Abramoff, along with Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and various colleagues, are jailed. Spacey has a great moment at the end in front of a Congressional hearing as he defended himself against three felony charges in front of Congressmen whose coffers he had filled over the years. But did it really happen?
I have a weakness for people who love movies and Jack loved the movies. He quoted them to the distinct irritation of his various bosses. After disaster struck and he was facing years in prison, he flew to Paramount Studios to pitch a Bible epic like a latter day Cecil B. DeMille. He teaches screenwriting in prison. The man is indefatigable. He’ll be back. Watch yours.