Gadfly documentarian Alex Gibney continues to crusade against abuses of power with his new film about fallen superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Alex Gibney has been called a moralist, but it’s unlikely anybody would be calling him anything if he didn’t also have a knack for a rip-roaring story. The 56-year-old documentary filmmaker has long been fascinated by abuses of power, and what those abuses say about us as a society. But he also loves a good yarn—preferably one that features a spectacular rise followed by an equally spectacular, Icarus-like fall. These twin predilections often draw him to evildoers. Esquire recently called him a “biographer of bad guys,” a characterization Gibney says he doesn’t mind. “I’m more interested in the perps than the victims,” he admits, sitting in a cheerful, light-drenched office on the far west side of Manhattan, which seems curiously at odds with the shadowy netherworlds his films explore.
Gibney’s interest in perps has led to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which explores the consequences of the Defense Department's revised torture policy. He also has an upcoming, untitled project about New York’s former “Luv Guv” Eliot Spitzer, which screened as a work in progress at the Tribeca Film Festival. These urgent, topical documentaries are presented almost like thrillers, full of plot twists, zany peripheral characters, and loaded musical interludes. Each charts how powerful men can get away with murder (sometimes literally) with an often playful subtext that seems to say, “Can you fucking be-lieve these guys?”
These qualities are also present in Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney’s new film which just opened in theaters. (GOOD founder Ben Goldhirsh is an executive producer on the film.) It explores the career of superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who went to jail in 2006 for corruption of public officials and defrauding Indian tribes of millions of dollars. But there’s so much more to the Abramoff story, it turns out—including alleged connections to an apparent mob hit and secret Chinese sweatshops on a paradisical island in the western Pacific.
Gibney devotes ample time to Abramoff's earlier years, specifically his tenure as Chairman of the College Republicans at the beginning of the Reagan revolution. There, Abramoff met fellow free-market extremists Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, with whom he forged lucrative lifelong relationships rooted in shared a belief that the market should regulate government, not the other way around. When Abramoff became a lobbyist after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress made pay-to-play politics the norm, both would benefit enormously.
Abramoff declined to participate in the film; according to Gibney, he reneged under pressure from the Department of Justice. But as Casino Jack tracks Abramoff’s efforts to direct money between Capitol Hill, Indian casinos in the South, the American commonwealth of the Marianas Islands in the western Pacific, and his own bank account, a consensus portrait emerges of a brilliant huckster and propagandist who is uniquely adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth—and who is ultimately done in by his own hubris. He is such a classic American charater, says Gibney, that “it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a musical about Jack Abramoff in a few years. It would be a great musical!”
Gibney brightens when I suggest that Abramoff’s character arc is like something out of Fitzgerald. “My favorite American novel is Gatsby,” he says. “It’s about how great we are, and how horrible we are, all at the same time. Gatsby takes the fall—he was a gangster, we can’t forget that—but he takes the fall, and the really evil people, like Tom Buchanan, get away with it.”
In other words, Abramoff may be a perp, but the question Gibney wants us to ponder is is this: Is Abramoff a villain? Is he even really that different from the rest of us? “I’m fascinated with the American dream,” Gibney says. “Both because of its sense of possibility, but also because when people climb the ladder, they make sure to kick the faces of everyone who tries to climb the ladder after them. There’s a sense that we’re willing to let people act like gangsters because we think maybe we’ll get there too some day.”
Gibney thinks that’s why there wasn’t more outcry over the system of legal bribery that Abramoff so expertly exploited. It’s too easy to just brand Abramoff a crook, Gibney says, and ignore ignore the larger, systemic problems: “Jack is a zealot. That means you have to look not only at the messianic figure, but also the religion. And what was the religion that Jack was promoting? The law of the jungle.”
And the jungle is getting even wilder, thanks to the Supreme Court’s January decision that campaign-finance limits violate free speech. Like President Obama, Gibney believes that this will make politicians more vulnerable than ever to extortion by corporate interests. Forget about free speech—what’s being protected is the free market, with politicians as commodities to be bought and sold. It’s everything Abramoff and his fellow Young Republicans could have hoped for a generation ago, and Gibney thinks it has America headed for catastrophe.
“I don’t want to make films that are like slot machines—you put in your money and you get back some predictable policy prescription. But in this particular case, if you don’t come out thinking we’ve got a problem and we’ve gotta fix it, then something’s wrong.”