Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Alex Gibney's Grand Gamble Of Graft and Greed

Alex Gibney, director of the new documentary, "Casino Jack: The United States Of Money".  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are there filmmakers out there now who are forensic-like dissectors of human behavior and more clinical than Alex Gibney?

You may have to look long and think hard to come up with another contemporary documentary filmmaker who plunges the depths of human malice more deeply than Mr. Gibney, whose new documentary "Casino Jack And The United States Of Money" opened in New York and Los Angeles over the weekend and arrives in San Francisco and elsewhere this Friday.

Mr. Gibney has a keen eye for chronicling the destructive, reckless forces of the powerful and their hubris, whether being part of the team behind the epic documentary "The Corporation" (2004) or the sole architect of the chilling "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room" (2005), still his most penetrating work.  He has also looked at one of the most vital and significant figures in American literary and political culture, the late Hunter S. Thompson, in "Gonzo" (2008).

The filmmaker has also been introspective, with figures like his late father in the moving and powerful "Taxi To The Dark Side" (2007), for which he won the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 2008.  Mr. Gibney also executive-produced Charles Ferguson's documentary "No End In Sight" (2007).

In addition to "Casino Jack", Alex Gibney is busy with two other documentaries, which just happened to both come together this year: "Freakonomics", a segment of which he directed, and "Eliot Spitzer", about Mr. Spitzer's rise and fall both personally and politically.  Both were shown recently in world premieres at the just-concluded Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The order of this particular day though is "Casino Jack", and Mr. Gibney was on the phone from Washington D.C. late last month to talk about the film, which focuses on the criminal activity of Jack Abramoff, currently serving a four-year prison sentence for his political bribery, corruption and ethics crimes.

A studious man, Mr. Gibney said he was grateful for the acknowledgment of the role of music has played in his documentaries, especially this new one.

"Picking the music is one of the great joys for me," Mr. Gibney said.  "The music in my films work in two ways: as a typical Greek chorus and as an emblem of character.  The songs represent character.  Howling Wolf becomes a poet laureate to Jack Abramoff.  In (the scenes of) Angola prison, there's "Enter Sandman" from Metallica."

Convicted felon Jack Abramoff, now behind bars.   Corbis

Mr. Gibney has used a lot of blues, R&B and rock music to amplify the themes in his films, which are often told in chapters, insightful and entertaining episodes of irony, doom, decline and chaos of the personalities and events he documents.

Some of the music when juxtaposed against the amoral and venal behavior of the soulless creatures of Mr. Gibney's films operates as a slice of comic relief.  (Over the closing credits of "Enron" for example, Tom Waits growls like a hungry bear on his song poetically titled "God's Away On Business".)  However one views the music punctuating "Casino Jack", there's no doubt about what the director feels about music.

"Music is a passion for me."

And obviously music isn't the director's only interest.

"I've always been interested in corruption.  You know, the idea, the saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  People who get drunk on power get very reckless.  And once you start to believe your own press, the sky's the limit." 

"Casino Jack" features punch-drunk corruption, wall-to-wall sloth, and chronicles an audaciousness some may even find sexy.  A breezy, devil-may-care recklessness and abandon by corporate monsters might titillate or attract some with addictive personalities or lizard-brained, hard-wired limbic systems.  Mr. Abramoff, a convicted felon and former lobbyist, gleefully behaved in a "kiss my ass" and "go f--k yourselves" way that viewers who haven't paid attention to the news will see in Mr. Gibney's film as cold, creepy and disturbing.  There's also a high level of fascination attendant with the roulette wheel of corruption spinning through the corridors of power in Washington D.C.

Make no mistake, Mr. Abramoff's conduct, just like that of Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow of Enron constituted economic terrorism, although on a smaller, yet severe scale.  Mr. Gibney however, spills the tragic, electrifying story of Darwinian monsters bent on destruction without judgment, unlike such documentary filmmakers as Michael Moore, whose approach is more colorful and indicting.  By contrast, in "Casino Jack", as in all of his films, Mr. Gibney lays out the sordid tale and lets the crooks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere speak loudly for themselves.

"Casino Jack" has an assorted cast of characters including former Ohio Republican congressman Tom DeLay, an indicted felon who Mr. Gibney pointed out will be facing state charges on corruption and bribery, due to a Texas court's recent decision not to throw out the state charges Mr. Delay sought the removal of.

A screen shot of Enron executive Cliff Baxter's suicide note to his wife, as seen in Mr. Gibney's 2005 documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room".  Magnolia Pictures

The film took three years to make, and surprisingly it wasn't too difficult getting the principals involved to go on camera for "Casino Jack", including Bob Ney, the former Ohio Republican congressman who served a two-year prison sentence for his criminal involvement with Mr. Abramoff.

As is the case in numerous Alex Gibney documentaries, there are gray area-type figures and sympathetic beings, and in "Casino Jack", which debuted at Sundance in January, there's Neil Volz, the former chief of staff for Mr. Ney. 

"Neil Volz was torn between doing the right thing and left a deeply corrupted figure," Mr. Gibney commented.  Mr. Volz, a young, idealistic man, was convicted of conspiracy and bribery in connection with Mr. Ney and Mr. Abramoff.  "Casino Jack" reveals Mr. Volz's considerable role in the malfeasance permeating Capitol Hill.

The director gave his own reflections of Mr. Volz.

"He was able to speak very honestly but also very personally about the process of corruption.  He typified the curiosity that is human, that many of us have, with temptation.  We all get tempted to step over the line just a little bit.  You keep going a bit further and further.  Pretty soon you forget where the line was."

With the explosion of American political and corporate scandals in this early 21st century, will Mr. Gibney weigh in on the 2008 Goldman Sachs nightmare in a future documentary?

"You know, I sometimes think that I get a bit too deep into the finance realm (when it comes to corruption), but the fact is that there's an abuse of high finance and fiduciary principles at the heart of corruption in this era.  You can't help but look at it."

"Casino Jack: The United States Of Money" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will soon be playing across the U.S.  The documentary is released by Magnolia Pictures.


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