Moment of Truth: Alex Gibney on Casino Jack (and the Rest of His Documentary Binge)
If you think you may have read a disproportionate amount of coverage here over the last few weeks about filmmaker Alex Gibney, you're probably right. But it's only because the Oscar-winning documentarian has a staggering number of films arriving on the scene at once: In addition to his three movies debuting at the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival, Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens May 7 in limited release. Not even Werner Herzog can match than kind of productivity, though as Gibney told Movieline, it was kind of accidental for himself as well.
As the director's definitive documentary portrait of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Casino Jack has actually gestated for several years. His adaptation of Lawrence Wright's one-man play My Trip to Al-Qaeda -- the personalized counterpart to Wright's bestselling nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 -- came together around the same time Gibney was grilling Eliot Spitzer for an untitled doc about the disgraced former New York governor. (Coverage of the film's work-in-progress screening is here, while Gibney also supplied additional perspectives on Spitzer to Movieline last week.) Finally, Gibney's short film about "the crumbling facade of Sumo wrestling" rounds out the all-star doc omnibus Freakonomics, which premieres Friday as Tribeca's closing-night gala presentation.
I cornered Gibney recently to talk about finding sympathy for Jack Abramoff, making a doc out of a drama, what's special to him about Sumo, and to attempt to get some idea of when he sleeps.
I feel like you must be making a movie as we speak.
That's right. I'm filming right now.
You have four movies debuting over two weeks!
I know! What's wrong with me? What was I thinking?
How does that happen?
I have no idea. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Some of them were supposed to be done earlier, but they took a long time to complete for all sorts of different reasons. So they ended up colliding with each other. I didn't release any movies last year, though. At least I don't think [so]. That was an off year for me!
So one at a time, I guess. Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens Friday -- when did you take that one on?
I took it on a long time ago, but I actually think now it's more relevant than ever. There was a lot of pressure to get the film out during the fall of the Obama/McCain election. I'm so glad we didn't do that because the film might have been perceived as some kind of election issue. I think it's more. I mean, it is an election issue in a particular sense. But it's really a much bigger deal, which is all about elections. Elections have taken over the political process to the point where there is no more discussion of policies. It's only about getting elected, and it's only about getting the money to get elected. I think that having waited to release the film until after that made it more relevant than it would have been had we decided to release it two years ago. It also gave us time to get some people who were in prison, like [former Ohio Rep.] Bob Ney and [Abramoff associate] Adam Kidan.
You ask questions in your introduction: "Has it always been like this? Were we more innocent once, or were we just naive?" What did you personally conclude?
I think it's a little bit of both. I think... Look. The bare-knuckle brawling of the political boss system was not a pretty picture either. Tammany Hall was not a kind of vision of how representative democracy should work. We can't romanticize the past. But I think what has changed is the role money plays in politics. It's become so much more pernicious simply because the economics have changed. Elections are so much more expensive, and they're predominantly won or lost on television. When you're talking about making those spots and buying that TV time, you're talking about a lot of money. So the pressure to raise that money becomes enormous, which means that the compromises you have to make in order to get that money become internalized.
That's really the most dispiriting part. The law always says there has to be a link -- a quid pro quo. But by and large, there isn't that link. There's just a whole steering of your whole set of principles toward the money. And it happens in ways that are sometimes invisible, and you imagine that you're not even doing it. People in big corporations have told me it's not just them doing the influencing; it's congressmen and senators showing up on their doorsteps and basically extorting them. They're saying, "Guys, want a seat at the table? Pay up!"
To that end, you also ask if this is a story of government or personal corruption. When it comes to Jack Abramoff, do you think his corruption was internalized? Was it something pathological, some kind of invincibility issue?
I do think he had hubris. He got so powerful and he was hanging out worth so many powerful people, and he was hardwired into the White House and Tom Delay -- the most powerful people in Washington. And he was making so much money. He was giving a lot of it away, mind you, but he was making so much money that I'm sure he imagined himself to be invincible. I also think that Jack -- unlike [Abramoff associate Michael] Scanlon... I think Scanlon was dirty. Scanlon was more like a mobster. In some ways mobsters aren't corrupt; they're mobsters who know they're committing crimes; that's their business. That was Scanlon's business model, too -- to commit crimes. Jack was a zealot. What he was doing flowed from that kind of zealotry. There's a psychological process of corruption that happens with Jack where he believes that he's doing good. He can't be bad.
What were your meetings with him in prison like, and how did they influence the film?
It's hard to say how they influenced the film. They did to some extent; I certainly became more sympathetic. Now, jack may look at this film and say, "Sympathetic? Where's the sympathy?" But I think I told Jack that I wasn't ever not going to be uncritical of him. He knew I was going to be critical of his actions. But I am sympathetic to how he's been used by Washington as a kind of a scapegoat. It's very easy to say, "Jack Abramoff is the problem. He's gone? Problem solved." It's clearly not the case. So I fund a lot of sympathy. I also came to understand him better, and that caused me to put some stuff in the film that hadn't been there before. He's a great salesman, he's very charismatic. he's an excellent storyteller. So we put in some of those audiotapes of him pitching the Indian tribes. It seemed like you really needed to understand, "How did Jack sell?" Well, this is it.
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