Early in the new documentary Casino Jack, a young Ralph Reed appears wearing a camouflage trucker hat, overcome with anti-Communist fervor at a rally in support of the Nicaraguan contras. Later on there is a beturbaned Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) posing with his mujahideen friends in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And there is Jack Abramoff at a meeting of freedom fighters hosted by rebel leader (and human rights abuser) Jonas Savimbi in Angola.
The best part of Casino Jack is the archival footage that puts the disgraced super-lobbyist in the context of the conservative movement stretching back to his years at the helm of the College Republicans in the early 1980s.
(Abramoff’s infatuation with Savimbi, by the way, was the inspiration for the 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion, produced and written by Abramoff.)
TPMmuckraker attended a screening of the film in New York Wednesday night. Many of those interviewed in the film will be familiar to regular readers: Melanie Sloan from the watchdog group CREW; National Journal’s Peter Stone; Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer for her groundbreaking Abramoff reporting and whose work the film relied on; a remorseful Bob Ney, the only member of Congress convicted in connection with the scandal; and a cheerfully defiant Tom DeLay.
The film serves as a reminder of just how close some who are still in the public realm — Reed, who considered a congressional run this year, and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist — were to Abramoff and his lobbying business.
Director Alex Gibney, whose Taxi to the Dark Side won an Oscar, has performed an invaluable service in presenting the story in way that’s accessible for future political science students who want a primer on who Jack Abramoff was and what he did. It’s easier, and a lot more fun, to watch a movie than to dive into the Washington Post archives.
If the movie is long (about two hours) and a bit choppy at times, all in all it does an admirable job covering what has always been a hard-to-distill scandal. (For those who don’t like their spinach, there’s a feature film due out in the fall and also called Casino Jack, which will star Kevin Spacey as Abramoff.)
Tacked on to the end of Casino Jack is a riff on Wall Street lobbyists and the causes of the financial crisis, a heavy-handed attempt to bring it all to the present. (At the end of the New York screening, Gibney along with activist Lawrence Lessig preached campaign finance reform.)
Happily, though, Casino Jack returns to the story at hand and the credits roll to Tom DeLay rocking out on Dancing with the Stars.
Watch the trailer below. The film is set for theatrical release May 7.