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You Don't Know Jack

Documentary uncovers a corrupt lobbyist

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Alex Gibney's LATEST documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the Republican Party via lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "the man who bought Washington." More coherent than Michael Moore's recent films, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is such a thorough exploration of corruption and greed, you might as well call Gibney our top government watchdog.

Early in the film, we learn that the investigation of Abramoff (currently serving a four-year prison term on various counts of fraud) began when a Native American tribe claimed he bilked them out of casino money. Senator John McCain started the inquiry, but as Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, says, "It was too late to put the genie back in the bottle."

Indeed. It turns out that Abramoff was connected to a number of high-ranking government officials, including former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and possibly President George W. Bush. In connecting the dots, Gibney effectively lays out his subject's life story.

Born in Atlantic City, Abramoff moved to Beverly Hills, where he became an Orthodox Jew after seeing Fiddler on the Roof. He joined the Young Republicans in college and, along with Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, became part of a trio determined to put a conservative platform into practice.

He got his chance, allying with the right-wing Citizens for America, where he was introduced to the people who eventually helped him become a high-powered lobbyist. Abramoff started funneling millions of dollars through the American International Center, a fake foundation headed up by a former lifeguard who now admits he wasn't even qualified to run a Baskin-Robbins. When a Native American tribe begins leaking information to a reporter from a small Louisiana newspaper, everything starts to unravel.

But Casino Jack isn't just about Abramoff: Gibney — who previously made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room — posits that the deregulated market has given other businessmen and lobbyists the loopholes they need to operate. Be sure to stick around for the final credits, which include clips from DeLay's appearance on Dancing With the Stars. Watching him strut his stuff and lip-sync to "Wild Thing" is an appropriate end to the wild story at the heart of this scandal.

Send feedback to jniesel@clevescene.com.

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