Were he still in the House, notorious deregulator Tom DeLay would surely have argued against my new proposal: the aggressive regulation of soundtrack licensing for documentaries. Thank Michael Moore for the proliferation of insufferably cutesy music cues in nonfiction cinema—think “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as the bin Ladens flee America in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Documentarian Alex Gibney—of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the forthcoming Eliot Spitzer exposé and this dissection of Beltway lobbyist-cum-con man Jack Abramoff—is better at research, argument and retaining his composure than Moore. But he’s, remarkably, even worse at music. “Watching the Detectives” plays as investigators dig into Abramoff’s past. “Enter Sandman” blasts as colleagues head to Afghanistan to hang with the mujahideen. “Burning Down the House” plays for Newt Gingrich.
Abramoff’s story, a dense thicket of corruption, is tailor-made for black comedy. But Gibney mostly falls back on mere sarcasm, hoping that thuddingly literal songs, jokey film clips and dumb graphics will atone for the lack of incisive, sharp satire.
Gibney could have just told the story straight and come out with a bleakly hilarious film. As Casino Jack has it, Abramoff, who did not participate in the film for obvious reasons, is a product of his time and place. A college Republican in the lead-up to the Reagan administration, he ran with the wrong kids (Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist) who shared a worldview both fanatically anti-Soviet and hilariously macho. (The best revelation: Abramoff produced and co-wrote the Dolph Lundgren Rambo ripoff Red Scorpion.)
What happens is unchecked megacapitalism taken to absurdist extremes, with Abramoff so reckless he all but begs for prison. Did he really use all-expense-paid luxury hotels to convince Republicans to overlook slave labor in the Mariana Islands? Did he really bilk Indian casinos then turn around and campaign for their closing? And was he seriously that forthright about his misdeeds in profane, easily obtained e-mails?
Each offense and loophole-jump is ballsier and more outrageous than the last, and as Abramoff and company push and push and push their luck, Casino Jack becomes almost exhilarating, harnessing the thrill of hanging with the bad guys as they get away with murder. The material’s so strong not even Moore—or Gibney—could muck it up too badly.