Alex Gibney’s The Untitled Eliot Spitzer Project was the most talked about documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival — but it’s only one of four docs he’s unveiling this year. My Trip to Al Qaeda, his documentary with Lawrence Wright, and Freakonomics, which he co-directed, will be out later this year. On May 7, he delivers the absurdly lurid political scandal of Casino Jack: Jack Abramoff and the United States of Money. We spoke with him about “how you just can’t make this shit up,” and about plans to make a Ken Kesey doc using 40 hours of film taken inside the Merry Pranksters’ bus. Plus, we have an exclusive clip from the movie.
First off, where did that black hat that Abramoff wore to court come from? He looked luck such a spy.
Ha! I think Jack would probably say, “Hey, I’m an orthodox Jew and I was simply being observant, blah, blah, blah … ” Maybe. But the movie producer in him — the guy who produced Red Scorpion starring Dolph Lundgren — knows enough about costume design to know that when your time is up and all the cameras are on, you dress up in a black trench coat and a big black hat. You’re dressing up as the gangster because you believe that that’s what everybody thinks. It’s a moment of self-pity and grandiosity. His favorite movie was The Godfather, and he looked like a character in it.
Did you see this film as a sequel to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room?
There’s a lot of similarities. I mean, these guys [Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, Neil Volz, Tom DeLay] were the children of Reagan in the same way that [Enron’s] Lay and Skilling and Fastow were the children of Reagan. That was the Houston version, this was the Washington version. That was about economic corruption, this is about political corruption. In a way, Enron was a spectacular canary in the coal mine. This one company went down. Well, Casino Jack is about how we’re all going down. I think it’s happening now for the same reason as it did in Enron. When you believe that the unfettered free market is a moral guideline, then you’re done, because then it’s only about the price. I mean, money is the only value we seem to recognize. That’s the reductio ad absurdum of the Reagan revolution.
I still can’t get my head around the idea of politicians who go into politics because they don’t believe in government.
Well, presumably they go into it to destroy it. It’s like Grover Norquist says, you know, “I want government to be so small that I can take it in the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The idea of government, then, is to kill it.
In a lot of ways, the story you tell is a story of conservative-libertarian success.
You know, there is something wildly buccaneerish and charming about it. None of us want to be harnessed to regulations so, “Whoopee! Let’s go to the casino and gamble. Let’s fly off to the Marianas and bang hookers! Let’s play golf in Scotland!” So the tone of the storytelling is to not always just be wagging a finger but to enjoy the ride.
The life arcs of many of the conservatives you discuss — from Jack Abramoff to Tom DeLay — seem so similar. Many of these men led pretty debauched lives early on, and often struggled with addiction. Then they were born again, but it didn’t seem to squelch their desires.
That’s right. But I think being born again did solve their moral problems, because I think they thought they were holy men. If they were good, how could they do anything bad? I used to think it was ironic or contradictory, but now I think it’s part of corruption. In other words, once you believe in a kind of fundamental purity, then it’s easy to be corrupt because you think the end justifies the means.
You have some fun with Abramoff’s macho bravado.
Stanley Tucci read for Jack. And I didn’t want Stan to imitate Jack’s voice, I just wanted him to inhabit that frat-house sensibility. You know that song from the South Park [creators’] movie Team America, “America, Fuck Yeah”? That’s what that Jack was all about: kicking ass. They were these frat-house boys, these big swinging dicks, so I told Stan to have fun with it.
It makes satire kind of redundant.
These guys had an outsized and vivid imagination — and they weren’t held back by any expectations of propriety. Most lobbyists are more gray. Jack was really flamboyant.
I mean, a lifeguard from Delaware ends up leading a political-consulting front.
Yeah, and he tells us, “I wasn’t qualified to run a Baskin-Robbins!” You just can’t believe this is our government. It’s not how the Founding Fathers diagrammed it: Suddenly the government of Malaysia is being represented by a yoga teacher and a lifeguard on Rehoboth Beach? In the meantime, they’re laundering money from casinos to send to Ralph Reed the head of the Christian Coalition? You can’t make this shit up.
Abramoff finally got caught up in the way he exploited those Indian tribes. Does he feel regret? Responsibility?
I think Jack could make himself believe that he was doing the right thing, and, in fact, he does believe that he bled for the tribes. Now, the fact that he neglected to tell them that you know, 50 percent of those consulting fees to other firms were being kicked back to him …
You’re also working on a doc about Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. I imagine it must be exhausting to focus on so much that’s wrong. Do you need to do something positive to recharge?
Yeah, I think it’s important — and as more than a palate cleanser. There’s just more to life, so it’s important to engage other stuff or you go crazy. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel like you’re making an impact. Things can get pretty depressing.
Kesey, especially, is such a fun flipside to sixties militancy.
Unlike Leary who had a rigid approach to psychedelics, Kesey was all about the fun. Magic was very important to Kesey. Magic should be important to all of us: Like, why do you laugh at a joke? Who cares why you do. Ever since I read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you know, I’ve been a fan. In high school, I actually played McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When I heard there was film of this bus trip — 40 hours of film taken on the bus in 16mm color — I thought, “Wow, what a movie that would be.”
Here’s an exclusive clip from Casino Jack: Jack Abramoff and the United States of Money: