Casino Jack (2010)

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Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) is a gambling man. Not in the traditional sense, but in a very real sense: as a Washington “super-lobbyist” he is keeping a great many irons in the fire at the same time, some of them involving a lot of money, and some of them involving a lot of risk. His intentions are generally good; the millions of dollars he makes are put to good use, investing in charities, schools and a Kosher restaurant (!); all projects close to Abramoff’s heart. And yet, in the process of making all this money by making increasingly complex and shady deals with everyone from politicians to mob bosses, he has to cut a lot of legal corners, and the day finally comes when his bad business practices come home to roost and he is indicted before the Senate.

Abramoff is not a profiteer; he sees money as a means to an end, and all he really wants to do is do right by his family and his community. But he loses sight of a lot of moral integrity and ends up cheating his clients out of a great deal of money, in so doing also destroying other people’s worthy causes. Ultimately, his family pays the price, and Abramoff gets his just punishment. But that’s not the end of the story. This movie leaves us with a strong and critical statement about the political workings of American society, and how all the parties in this money-driven arena are tied in with each other, every one of them having accepted “donations” and other services from diverse special interest groups – or, indeed, lobbyists. Abramoff ends up being a fall-guy, but he is actually one of the nicer guys in these kinds of operations, and the bigger fish go free. Abramoff even protects them, whether this is due to personal pride (not wanting to be a snitch) or due to some unspoken understanding between them. I kept thinking of Oliver Stone’s moral in his Nixon movie: that Nixon was no worse than many other Republicans; the only difference was that he got caught.

Casino Jack also makes me think of a string of other political movies that might be said to be in a similar category, from The Distinguished Gentleman to Recount and even Arlington Road. Essentially the movie is a (justified, in my view) indictment of the faulty democracy of capitalist society and how our current-day big business, big politics and lobbyism all comprise a kind of high-risk conspiracy – a “you scratch my back, I scratch your back” network – working together to protect each other, so as to let the money keep flowing, no matter how much they have to exploit and manipulate the common people, whose interests they do not deign to care about; whose welfare it rarely occurs to them to consider. This is what Casino Jack is saying, and it is a point well taken. The upper classes lack empathy with, and moral obligation to, the lower classes, and this is always a growing problem, causing riots and ripples in the social fabric; in the social contracts.

The movie is, however, not as sharp as many other political movies. It is well-directed and well-acted, containing surprising amounts of both comedy and high drama, but it lacks a certain passion; it would have been nice if it had been a bit braver and had taken a clearer stand about its subject than it does. I have no doubt that the movie’s mission is to criticize the system, but it also tries to do so in a somewhat laissez-faire way so that doesn’t broadcast its own politics too loudly. I can understand such a strategy, and no one wants to be preached to, but I think it could have made its statements in much stronger ways. Then again, maybe I’m too hard to please. It is, in any event, a good movie, fully recommended for everyone who enjoys political movies and/or Kevin Spacey movies.

Casino Jack is out on DVD and Blu-ray on July 16th. This review is based on an early screener disc without menus, chapters or anything else, so I will not rate the DVD as such, except to say that the screen image was perfectly fine – no complaints there.

Director: George Hickenlooper
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre and others.
Runtime: 103 min.
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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