A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Political movies often play cute in drawing parallels with actual figures. They drop broad hints that a character is “really” Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton and so on. “Casino Jack” is so forthright, it is stunning. The film is “inspired by real events,” and the characters in this film have the names of the people in those real events: Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Rep. Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, Rep. Bob Ney and Sen. John McCain.
This decision to name names by the director George Hickenlooper seems based on boldness, recklessness or perhaps iron-clad legal assurances. His film uses a fictional sledgehammer to attack the cozy love triangle involving lobbyists, lawmakers and money. It stars Kevin Spacey in an exact and not entirely unsympathetic performance as Abramoff, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, who was convicted on charges involving the funds he stole from wealthy Indian casinos while arranging laws for their convenience on Capitol Hill. He has been released on parole and just finished a stint working in a Baltimore pizza parlor.
The first press screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was witnessed in a sort of stunned silence by a capacity audience, interrupted slightly by an undercurrent of incredulous murmurs and soft laughter when Spacey, as Abramoff, in a fantasy sequence, explodes at a Senate hearing chaired by McCain. Having evoked the Fifth Amendment repeatedly, he's unable to restrain himself any longer and jumps to his feet to accuse the very members of the Senate panel of having taken campaign contributions and favors from his Indian clients and then voting in their favor. Abramoff shows some degree of honor among thieves by not pulling such a stunt.
Astonishingly, Hickenlooper intercuts real footage of the real hearing and the real John McCain with Spacey's performance. Can he get away with this? I guess so. The film's distributor, ATO Pictures, has no doubt had the film scrutinized by its attorneys. Apart from that, there's the likelihood (which lawyers may think but cannot say) that no one named in this film is very likely to sue. The Abramoff scandal was called at the time the biggest since Watergate (both were broken by the Washington Post), but in the years since his sentencing in 2006, his name has faded from everyday reference, and it's doubtful anyone desires to make it current again. With Alex Gibney's doc “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” also around, those deep waters are being sufficiently stirred.