Not to be confused with the insightful documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money by the prolific Alex Gibney, this docudrama is nonetheless a fitting bookend. Helmed by the late George Hickenlooper, it focuses less on Jack Abramoff’s exploits as a Republican wingnut (he’s said to have had a hand in waylaying McCain in 2000 and helped usher in the Bush era) than on his more obscure shenanigans, such as defrauding Native American tribes seeking casino-friendly legislation and managing a shady Greek cruise line.
Hickenlooper, who also put in time as a documentarian (Hearts of Darkness), holds an obvious regard for truth. He and his writer, Norman Snider (Dead Ringers), work tirelessly to make Abramoff sympathetic despite the sleaze — and at the same time, like Gibney, to condemn his pay-to-play influence game on Capitol Hill. It’s the pols (Tom DeLay and Bob Ney) who come off as the real tools.
But Kevin Spacey’s bravura performance really sells the story. A pragmatic idealist and an egomaniac with delusional views of how the world operates, Abramoff maintained a cocksure arrogance even as his world collapsed. Spacey captures him gleefully, savoring the famous movie lines he spits out to seal a deal. (Abramoff spent years in Hollywood as a low-rung producer.) Portraying this ugly American is the actor’s best work since American Beauty.