Alex Gibney has quickly become the go-to director when you want a documentary about American corruption. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a staggering look at the now-infamous company, and how they manipulated California’s energy market. His follow-up, Taxi to the Dark Side, examined the Bush administration’s horrifying interrogation/torture policies, and later won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. After taking a break from serious stuff with an excellent Hunter S. Thompson documentary, Gibney returns with Casino Jack and the United States of Money. With uncommon access to those involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal (including former congressmen Bob Ney and Tom DeLay), Gibney condenses complex schemes into a something that’s both accessible and incendiary. It’ll anger anyone frustrated by how lobbyists and special interests corrupt the democratic process. Before its May 7th release, I participated in a roundtable with Gibney and a few other reporters.
What drew you to Jack Abramoff?
It was the story. I followed the coverage, and the fun was taken out of the Post’s reporting. You could see the potential in this many-tentacled story: a mob hit, Chinese sweatshops in the Marianas, Indian casinos, even arms deals. It was all so outrageous. At the heart of it, though, was something fundamentally wrong with our government. With the Enron story, obviously I followed the news coverage, but it never occurred to me I should do a documentary until I read Peter and Bethany’s book. It was the characters in the story that led me to think, “Ok, this would make a good film.”
How did you get Congressmen and others to participate in interviews?
I bribed them [laughs]. This film took a long time to make because it took a while to get people to talk. Some of my interviews were stuck in prison – I know I sent Bob [Ney] letters in prison, and got no response. I know as soon as Neil [Volz] was sentenced, I found him and we talked over a beer. He wanted to get some stuff off his chest, also to be a part of something that looked at his personal scandal as part of a bigger, systemic problem. Neil getting on board helped me get Bob because, well, Neil helped send Bob to prison. Later Bob wanted a chance to talk about what was happening in Washington. They didn’t want to excuse themselves.
Is there anyone you wish you interviewed on camera?
Grover Norquist said no. I spoke to Ralph Reed off the record. I was thinking about this problem in relation to the recent Tiger Woods apology. Everyone is so conscious of how they craft their message, so getting anyone to sit down and speak frankly has become quite difficult. Of course, the big person I wanted to talk to was Jack… Well, I did talk to him, but I just was never allowed to on camera.
Because he was in prison?
Even while he was in prison, we mounted an effective legal campaign to get the Bureau of Prisons to stand down and let us film, particularly after we heard Kevin Spacey had been allowed to visit him for a fictional film [ed. note: the fictional film is also called Casino Jack]. We were succeeding for a while, and then we got a letter from Jack’s lawyer saying he declined to be interviewed, as if we hadn’t been speaking prior. I know the Department of Justice was not happy about Jack being interviewed.
How did the conversations with Jack go?
It was great! The first image anyone conjures when they think of Jack is him in the famous black fedora and trench coat. Seeing him in person, you understood why he was a good lobbyist. Great sense of humor, good storyteller, quite charming. He was contrite (prison will do that), and I think he was sincere about his contrition. What most surprised me was his charm – I guess it shouldn’t have, but in the news coverage, no one some saw him speak. He was always silent as he was shuffled in and out of limousines.
In the interviews, was there any animosity between Bob and Neil?
At certain points, there was definitely a tightness in Bob’s voice. I think they’ve since come together a bit, and began talking again. It happened when they both come out to Sundance, which was the first time they’d seen each other since the scandal broke. They both liked the film, and Bob was impressed by Neil taking responsibility. What’s interesting about their relationship is how it’s a reminder for what the film is really about. I don’t know why I’m drawn to Lord of the Rings analogies, but it’s like the consuming power of the ring. The corruption ate at them both, so the friendship devolved into angry, drunken voice messages.
What do you think Jack would think of the movie?
I think he’d shake his head, and feel somewhat victimized. Although, there are things in the movie Jack would actually like. We connected on the idea that he’d been scapegoated. That isn’t to say he’s not guilty. It’s just convenient for a lot of people to say, “Oh, I didn’t know Jack Abramoff.” People would say everything is better now that he’s in prison.
Given the film’s section on the theatricality of the College Republicans in the 1980s, there seems to be a connection between them at the Tea Party movement.
Oh, there still is a connection! There is centralized control of the tea partiers. To a certain extent, the theatricality all comes out of the 1960s. The College Republicans were consciously trying to ape the methods of the radical left, but from a different ideology. And since we live in such a media-saturated society, everything is done for the cameras. It’s also interesting to see a lot of the same people involved in the Abramoff scandal now gently guiding this so-called grassroots, populist movement. In a way, everyone’s fighting over a way to capture/manipulate the anger of those who feel left out. With political theatricality, there’s an outlet for anger.
The movie’s plot is quite complicated. How did you storyboard the movie? Was there anything on the cutting room floor that you wish you included?
There was a big section we pulled out right after Sundance. I was sorry to pull it out, but I felt doing so was best for the film. We’re about to post it online. The section was all about the Medicare Modernization Act. Jack had a tangential role in that, the sort of thing you just stumble upon. I was talking to [someone from an Indian Casino], and he showed me a contribution he sent to Tom Delay’s group. The address belonged to Ed Buckham’s lawyer, who was funneling the money to this nonprofit buttressed by Pharma. It was a Republican plan that created a massive opening of the federal treasury for these business interests. Jack was in the middle of it, so you could see how all his schemes were filtering out to something much bigger. It was an important segment, but we pulled it out because it got so complicated you lost Jack as a character.
With this movie and what’s been going with Goldman Sachs, do you ever feel overwhelmed by the level of corruption in Washington?
Oh, yeah. So much corruption, so little time. It’s staggering, really. Since the Reagan revolution, we’ve had this deregulatory experiment that’s been festering. Now we’re opening the lid, and it’s not a pretty picture. And it’s not just a Republican problem. Obviously the Clinton administration went nuts in terms of financial deregulation. The notion we could solve our problems through by simply letting the market work has amped the level of corruption to an unbelievable degree.
How pressing were you in your interview with Tom DeLay?
Not very. The interview was part of his book tour, which limited the way we could talk to him. It also happened very early in this project. I can say I didn’t feel the swagger from DeLay that was evident when he was at the height of his power. What interested me was how forthright and unapologetic he was about certain things, and how he lied about other things [laughs]. I’m not sure what to call it when DeLay tells me, “Oh, Jack was just another lobbyist.”
Can you talk about your contribution in the upcoming Freakonomics documentary?
I cover the heaviest topic in the film. Mine is about Sumo Wrestling. There’s a small section in the book about sumo, cheating, and corruption. It was fun to talk to big, hulking wrestlers in a sand pit.
They’re probably a little more intimidating than the Casino Jack interviews.
[Laughs] Yeah, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of a sumo wrestler.
Thanks for taking the time to talk!
Don’t mention it.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens today at E Street. Definitely go check it out!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TQXjV3g-Lc