Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

casino_jack_and_the_united_states_of_moneyThe response I had to “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” is akin to when I, or really anyone, watches a book-to-film adaptation, especially of a very popular book, like one of the entries from the Harry Potter or Twilight series, a film made knowing that most of the fan base will be showing up to opening night. Depending on whether or not you’ve read the book your response to the movie will differ. If you have, you are able to fill in the blanks and connect all the plot lines and character motives that they had to cut out in order to make a 600+ page book into a two and a half hour movie. If you have not, then you can feel lost as you gaze into the plot holes, and as the movie progresses, the ability to track becomes much more difficult with an unfamiliar story line. Also if you fall into this second category, the inability to suspend disbelief is often accentuated because you will not feel as close to the characters as those who have poured over ever jot and tittle of the writer and it will therefore be up to the director to explain why you need to care about this person, about their story and about this film. If you leave the film and don’t care about what happened and what happens next, the director had not done his job. Watching “Casino Jack,” a documentary about Jack Abramoff, fraudster and lobbyist, I felt like I had not read the book and, furthermore, the director did not do his job.

Black_Jack2Just to give some background on me as an audience for “Jack”, I know nothing about politics. I know the name of the current president and if I’m given a few moments, I believe I can give the name of the vice-president. I am well aware that this makes me completely uninformed and wildly naive about something that affects me and my family and that I should stop watching and writing about film and start studying government. Yes, yes…I know. I got it. Ok. Now that you got that off your chest let me make the assertion, not as an excuse but just to get on with my review, that I am not alone. It is up to the filmmakers, especially in a documentary, to educate the audience about their subject. They should come to the editing room with people like me in mind and walk the very fine line between talking down to your audience and forgetting it altogether. As I was watching this film, I was confused. Then I was more confused. Then I was bored. For any other director I would have chalked it up as general ineptitude; someone who had not tackled a subject this big and did not understand that a general thesis needed to be agreed on before starting to film. However, the director of “Casino Jack”, Alex Gibney, also did “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The Road to Guantanamo Bay,” two very good documentaries that handled their subjects thoroughly and fairly. Therefore I must conclude that the director, and the editor Alison Ellwood, both understand the subject very well, I would say too well, and forgot about people like myself who don’t have the slightest idea what a caucus or a lobbyist is. After watching the film, I still don’t know what a lobbyist is. I don’t know what Abramoff did besides that it had something to do with making money from Native Americans and their casinos and then getting greedy, as well as something else with emails that he wrote. But, yeah, that’s about it. That’s not just a knock against a poorly thought out thesis, that’s saying that the whole film was incompetently planned and edited.

There were portions where Jack wasn’t on screen or even talked about for large stretches of the film. This movie is supposed to be about him, right? It is his nickname in the title. It is his mug on the poster. Yet, we spend a good 10 minutes talking about the Northern Marianas Islands and the sweatshops and prostitution and poverty of its inhabitants. Why? I believe that Jack Abramoff was involved with it somehow; something about leading tours through the sweatshops, but darned if I know why he was doing it or what that should be making us feel about Jack. Another example. Early on in Abramoff’s life he converted to Judaism after watching “Fiddler on the Roof.” An interesting anecdote for sure but it was never brought up again. Was he a very religious man who struggled with guilt over what he did? Maybe, but it isn’t mentioned. Did he use his Judaism as a tool to get on people’s good side or into exclusive groups and clubs? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s here then it’s gone. So, why bring it up at all? Abramoff’s downfall came from the copious amount of emails he wrote speaking blatantly about all the people he was ripping off and all the other scams he was planning to implement. That’s the big turn around of the story. Finally the villain has been captured! Yet, we are not shown who got all his emails, how Jack was discovered, what he felt when it happened, nor how it all panned out. That would have been interesting to see. Instead we get the emails floating across the screen in stylish text as Stanley Tucci narrates. It’s the next best thing I suppose.

abramoff-fedora-muckIf I were to come up to you and tell you that someone you don’t know was caught for fraud and placed in jail, your response would probably fall somewhere between, “Who?” and “So?” and that’s reasonable because you have no connection with this person you’ve never met and therefore don’t know why you should care about him. I don’t know who Jack Abramoff is. I don’t really care who he is. I went to this film saying, “Tell me why you spent the time to make this movie and, more importantly, why I should spend the time to watch it.” I didn’t get an answer. In the end, there really did not seem to be much of a point. We have to know why we should care before we can care. The film spans Abramoff’s life and he is never portrayed in a good light, so he is clearly the bad guy we need to boo when he’s on screen so I’m not going to empathize with him. So, then whom are we supposed to be rooting for? The Native American’s he swindled? They are not really given enough screen time and we never really land on that subject long enough for any of the talking heads to be given much of a personality. Really no one, not the politicians, not the reporters, not the associates, no one was given much of a personality and therefore I didn’t give two spits about anyone, which is just poor storytelling. One of the final lines in the film says it all. “[Jack's] action filled life led way to a dreary documentary.” And how.

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