Kevin Spacey stars as Jack Abramoff in ATO Pictures' Casino Jack (2010)

Casino Jack Abramoff – and George Hickenlooper R.I.P.

In a moment of anger two years ago, Conrad Burns, the Republican former senator from Montana who received campaign funds through super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff declared that “Jack Abramoff should never have been born.”

It was an easy comment for Burns to make. Abramoff was already under indictment and cooperating with US authorities who were investigating allegations of crimes committed by Abramoffs political friends, some of whom would end up in prison, like Abramoff himself.

It was a moment when politicians were running away from lobbyists like Jack Abramoff (below), instead of running to him begging for cash.  George W. Bush ran away, too. They said that you werent a real Republican those days unless you were running away from Jack Abramoff.

Abramoffs response to Burnss statement that he should never have been born was typical. “Thats quite a comment from a pro-life Republican,” he said.

Its one of the few zinger lines thats not in Casino Jack, the slapstick dramatization of Abramoffs adventures of criminal greed, directed by the late George Hickenlooper, who died in Denver at 47 a few days before the film screened there. The film opened the Denver Film Center/Colfax at the Denver Film Festival. The event was to celebrate George Hickenloopers latest triumph, and the election of John Hickenlooper, the Democratic mayor of Denver who just bucked the national trend when he was elected governor last Tuesday.

Instead, the screening was something of a memorial for George, whose cause of death is still undisclosed.

Casino Jack  Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper

'Casino Jack' stars Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper over act their way through story of Jack Abramoff.

In the title role, Kevin Spacey is shamelessly and warmly scornful as the lobbyist who practiced orthodox Judaism and funded a machine-gunning school in Israel – and thats not even a joke. Barry Pepper is perfect as the cocky oleaginous staffer (Michael Scanlon) who makes the fatal mistake of cheating on his ambitious girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre). Jon Lovitz deserves a supporting actor prize for his role as Adam Kidan, a paunchy mobbed-up mattress mogul, a cartoonish would-be lothario whose punch-lines were even better than Abramoffs. Yet Abramoff talks him into buying a gambling boat.  You can see why actors wanted to be in this film.

Casino Jack doesnt get its inspiration from the documentaries that have raked over political corruption and misdeeds in the last few years. As a subject, its the gift that keeps on giving. One of those docs, by Alex Gibney (below), even has the same title (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and there was much angry talk last year of who stole the title from whom.

Hickenloopers Casino Jack avoids the literal approach, and its been criticized for that with charges of inaccuracy. In the broad context, its accurate enough.

Abramoff built a lobbying practice on ripping off Indian tribes who were desperate to make money on casino gambling. He also delivered campaign money to politicians who supported his clients and their interests. He opened Signatures, a restaurant in Washington where he saved money by feeding politicians directly. They lined up at the trough. What a surprise.

Dont expect lists and figures here. This film takes its cues from the vaudeville style of Thank You for Smoking, Jason Reitmans public burning of the tobacco industry.  The assumption seems to be that you cant tell the story to a broad public without entertainment. Well see when the film opens nationally on December 17. My guess is that it will be a casualty of politics-fatigue, unless Kevin Spacey makes a huge commitment to promoting it.

It could be a tough job. Most of America voted the allies of Abramoff back into office last week. Do they remember anything?

They did in Colorado, where the Democratic mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, was voted governor. (Another Democrat, Michael Bennet, was elected US Senator.)
John Hickenlooper remembered George at the screening of Casino Jack, stopping at one long point to get his tears out of the way.  The two cousins didnt know that they were related until George visited Johns Wynkoop Brewing Company.  They found that have a colorful ancestor in common – the concert pianist Olga Samaroff (1880-1948), who was born Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, and went on to marry Leopold Stokowski. John Hickenlooper has acted in all of Georges features. Hes a member of the Screen Actors Guild. In Casino Jack, he plays a senator who yells, “take that man out of here.”

Now Abramoff is back, sort of, working in a pizza place outside Baltimore and studying Torah.  When the pious repentant man takes a break from rolling calzones to reflect on the past week, he has to enjoy the fact that the real beneficiaries of the hard work and heartfelt rhetoric of the Tea Party are the business clients that Abramoff used to represent. Abramoffs crimes were real. He might think that what he did wrong was to be too brazen about it.

George Hickenlooper wont be back.  Casino Jack shows that he was just hitting his stride as a director of fiction.  We need people like him more than we need the new Abramoffs.

Thank you for smoking.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.