When I wasn't watching the Harry Reid-Sharron Angle clash of the titans last night, and while I certainly did have a beer in hand (a new-to-me, and interesting Sam Adams "seasonal" -- Latitude 48 IPA), I felt vaguely guilty and thought I should be doing something political-season related.
So instead I watched the DVD of Alex Gibney's documentary about Jack Abramoff, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. I had missed it when it was in theaters this spring and am very glad to have caught up with it now. Indeed, my modest proposals for improving this election season would be to replace all upcoming senatorial, congressional, and gubernatorial debates with screenings of this film. Even though I'd been on-scene in DC when the real events it describes were unfolding, it made the scale and squalor of the corruption vivid in way they had never been for me before.
And it seems relevant at this moment, because a number of the same personalities are still around, and nearly all of the same issues. I had not absorb how fully Ambramoff had been part of the early Reagan movement (with Grover Norquist, a kind of co-villain of the movie). In watching the surge of the Gingrichites in 1994, leading to their takeover of control of the House, it's hard not to think of parallels to this year's election.
No one will call this movie's approach subtle. Eg, to symbolize that a politician is getting a payoff from gambling interests, it will show the politician's face coming up on all the spaces of the "Jackpot!" line of a slot machine. The poster, at bottom, has the same touch. But Gibney has so much to work with that the directness seems justified. And the footage of the politico-thriller Abramoff produced in a spell in Hollywood, Red Scorpion, is so campy as to justify the entire documentary. Seriously, the next time you're tempted to see some cable-news political chaw fest, check this out instead.
Disclosure: the director, Alex Gibney, is a Friend of the Atlantic. His brother, James, is an editor here, and Alex writes for our web site. On the other hand, he has won an actual Oscar for his documentaries, so it's not like complimenting him is some inexplicable inside favor.