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Casino Jack and the United States of Money -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- When it came to peddling political access for exorbitant fees, Jack Abramoff was the probably the most powerful lobbyist in Washington over a decade beginning in the mid-90s. Or the most ostentatiously reckless, considering that he's currently serving out a five-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2006 to fraud and conspiracy to bribe government officials.

Oscar-winning writer-director ("Taxi to the Dark Side") Alex Gibney's inclination to follow multiple threads of the sordid Abramoff saga in-depth is the doc's eventual undoing. Running two hours, "Casino Jack" is an exhaustive and exhausting elaboration of Abramoff's canon of greed and power that will enervate audiences with a surfeit of details. When Magnolia releases the film later this year, theatrical response is likely to be muted, but DVD viewers will find much to dig into at their own pace.

Abramoff's story might actually appear tragic if it weren't so surpassingly vulgar. His political ascendancy began in earnest after university, as national chairman of the College Republicans organization. Abramoff helped steer supporters and contributions to the national political party, hooking up with neocon fellow travelers Ralph Reed (later leader of the right-wing Christian Coalition) and ultra-conservative tax-abolition advocate Grover Norquist. By the time he earned his law degree and joined the lobbying firm of Preston Gates & Ellis in 1994 (after a strange detour into movie production), Abramoff had already made major Republican Party connections.

Abramoff's successful lobbying on behalf of Saipan sweatshop operators brought him into contact with disgraced former House majority leader Tom DeLay, as well as other influential Republican Party politicians. A move to the law firm of Greenberg Traurig in 2001 gave him the opportunity to systematically bilk a number of Native American tribes attempting to influence Congress on Indian gaming laws. A 2004 Congressional investigation revealed Abramoff's systematic fraud, leading him to plead guilty to federal felony charges and sparing the justice system the indignity and expense of putting him on trial.

The enormity of Abramoff's venality is ably matched by the compulsiveness of Gibney's filmmaking. Archival footage, ill-fitting reenactments and interviews with a head-spinning web of former Abramoff colleagues, fraud victims and politicians form the bulk of the film.

Despite its over-reaching scope, "Casino Jack" tackles some timely and essential issues to examine the role of money in American politics and the influence of special interests. The docu is well assembled by Gibney and producer-editor Alison Ellwood and the filmmakers orchestrate an impressive lineup of interviews, including the deposed DeLay, conservative Calif. Representative Dana Rohrabacher and former Republican congressman Bob Ney, convicted in 2006 of conspiracy in relation to his dealings with Abramoff's Indian gaming schemes.

The recent Supreme Court ruling removing limits on corporate and labor union campaign advertising will certainly complicate the lobbying landscape further, potentially opening the door to abuses on a scale that Abramoff could only have aspired to. As one observer puts it in the film, lobbying is just "a system of legalized bribery" -- there are likely to be others who recklessly cross ethical lines with impunity.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production: Magnolia Pictures in association with Participant Media, GOOD & Jigsaw Productions
Writer-director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood, Zena Barakat
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Benjamin Goldhirsh, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Bill Banowsky
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Music: David Robbins
Editor: Alison Ellwood
No rating, 120 minutes