*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Casino Jack' chronicles the rise and fall of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff starring Kevin Spacey. The film begins with his indictment, followed by a flashback to the beginning of his career as a high-powered lobbyist. The film does not get too deeply into Abramoff's activities in his younger days as head of the College Republican National committee and brief stint as a film producer. For information on his formative years, it is well advised to watch the excellent documentary about Abramoff entitled 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money'.
'Casino Jack' mainly focuses on the three major areas of Abramoff's lobbying history: work on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island (CNMI), for various Native American tribes to promote their casino gambling interests and purchase of SunCruz Casinos in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, initially owned by Konstantinos 'Gus' Boulos.
At the basic level, 'Casino Jack' provides an informative but somewhat superficial review of Abramoff's illicit activities (again, to be better informed, check out the documentary CJ and the US of Money). In the case of CNMI, sweatshop owners took advantage of the lax labor laws on the islands since the strict regulatory laws of the US did not apply. Abramoff got millions from these crooks to influence legislators to ensure that the sweatshop owners continued to exploit cheap labor imported from Asian countries. At one point, Abramoff is able to have Majority leader Tom Delay come out to the Marianas where he wines and dines him (including ubiquitous golf outings). Delay fails to make any deep inquiries regarding exploitation of the workers and is the later recipient of contributions to his campaign war chest and foundations from Abramoff. 'Casino Jack' further chronicles a setback that Abramoff must deal with--a new governor squashes Abramoff's contract so later CNMI senators are paid off and the senate council reinstates the contract. The US of Money documentary provides a sad postscript: international treaties eventually add regulatory clout to the garment industry so the sweatshop owners pick up and leave, resulting in the destruction of the islands' economy.
Abramoff's take no prisoners approach reaches its apotheosis in his dealings with the Native American tribes. Partnering with former Delay assistant, Mike Scanlon (played by an over the top Barry Pepper) Abramoff extracts millions from the Louisiana Coushatta tribe to ensure that the State of Texas passes a law preventing the Tiguas in El Paso from continuing to operate their casino there. He convinces the Coushatta tribe that his old college chum Ralph Reed, head of the Christian coalition, will work for the abolition of casino gambling in Texas. Since it would look bad that Reed was getting money from the Coushattas, their payments were funneled into a shell company under Scanlon's name. Money was sent to Reed and Scanlon but Abramoff of course got his cut, unbeknownst to the tribal leaders who agreed to the deal with Scanlon.. Then Abramoff goes back to the Tiguas and convinces them that although Reed worked against them in Texas, he actually was providing information about his anti-gambling strategy which would help Abramoff reverse the Texas ban on casino gambling. As it turned out, Abramoff's influence came to naught when Congress failed to overturn the Texas ban. The Tiguas were out millions and the embezzlement of their money figured in the eventual indictment of Abramoff.
Finally, in the most difficult to understand part of the movie, Abramoff enlists the aid of a disbarred attorney and Mattress company TV pitchman Adam Kidan, played by Jon Lovitz to purchase the SunCruz casino cruise boats. Lovitz plays Kidan as a comic sleaze-ball. The Abramoff documentary shows Kidan to be much more intelligent and classier than the way Lovitz depicts him here. The upshot of the SunCruz deal was that the owner Boulos was forced to sell his interest in his company since he was not a US Citizen. Abramoff conscripted a US representative Bob Ney (later convicted and jailed) to denounce Boulos in the Congressional record in exchange for access to Tom Delay. This apparently moved Boulos to act more quickly in agreeing to the sale of the company to Abramoff and Kidan. In order to obtain a $60 million loan, Abramoff and Kidan used a fake wire transfer of $23 million dollars and this was what they were eventually sent to prison for.
'Casino Jack' also delves into Abramoff's relationship with his wife, and some of his other interests including establishing of an Orthodox Jewish school for boys and two restaurants that he opened up for a time. Kevin Spacey is good at regurgitating all those movie lines Abramoff was famous for coupled with some notable impressions of famous politicians. But Spacey plays Abramoff more as a manic showman; the real Abramoff (in the documentary) appears to be much more low-key and cunning. Much more convincing is Spencer Garrett as Tom Delay who really gets the former representative down to a tee. Hannah Endicott-Douglass does a fine job as Abramoff's long-suffering wife. One of the best scenes is when she confronts her husband while he's taking a bath. Abramoff says he's ashamed of himself for letting 'God' down. The wife asks, "what about your family?"
For those who know nothing about the history of Jack Abramoff, 'Casino Jack' should be viewed as a basic primer on the events surrounding Abramoff's rise and fall. The film's scenarists do a fairly adequate job in covering the bases but much of what happens is not always easy to follow. That's what happens when there is too much material available to condense. I would have preferred that the casting director chose someone else besides Kevin Spacey to play Abramoff. Nevertheless, his performance is passable enough to hold one's interest to the end. I'm not entirely sure that 'Casino Jack' works as a comedy (which is what was basically done here). Certainly, there were comic moments to the saga. Overall, however, this was more tragic than funny.