‘No one watches documentaries,” reads an e-mail to Alex Gibney from notorious former lobbyist and now jailed felon Jack Abramoff, the subject of Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. “You should make an action film.” For a moment, it looks as if Gibney has done just that. A black car pulls up beside another car and bang bang bang: Casino operator Gus Boulis is dead, the gangland-style hit allegedly linked to Abramoff and his business partner, mattress mogul Adam Kidan. There are no more action reenactments, though. The rest of the hits are to wallets—of Native American casino owners in particular, but yours and mine in a roundabout way.
Casino Jack is audience-friendly without turning into a Michael Moore–ish clown show. The surprise is Abramoff, who in old footage looks like someone you might break challah with. “He could charm a dog off a meat truck,” says an ex-pal. A born-again Jew after watching Fiddler on the Roof, Abramoff knew it wasn’t a matter of if but when he’d be a rich man biddy-biddy-boom. In this he bonded with fellow Young Republican and born-again Christian Ralph Reed, who saw the potential for merging his two gospels: the New Testament and Atlas Shrugged. “Free market at last, free market at last … !”
How the devil did Gibney score interviews with Tom DeLay, Bob Ney (who, at Abramoff’s behest, inserted a condemnation of Boulis in the Congressional Record “apropos nothing”), and other good Republicans? Did the gold of his Oscar lure them in? The well-nailed Ney looks properly sheepish, but the Hammer still mists up when recalling the Marianas Islands, with their championship golf courses, absence of regulations, and abundance of sex slaves.
Gibney goes a mite easy on John McCain, seen grilling Abramoff over venal e-mails re gulling Native Americans while carefully avoiding implicating his House and Senate colleagues. But Gibney does finally kick the focus off Abramoff to bemoan the legalized-bribery system that’s the rule, not the exception. Demon lobbyist Abramoff got four years, less than New York kids caught selling four ounces of marijuana—and only then because those e-mails done him in. For today’s young free-enterprisers, Casino Jack might be less a cautionary tale than a recruiting poster.
The week’s other docs have enough action for an Abramoff Slammer Film Festival:
Crosscutting among four infants in four distinctly different cultures, Thomas Balmès’s Babies presents itself as an ethnographic meditation on the first year of life but is better approached as an “oooooh” and “awww” fest, proving infants with hiccups are equally adorable in the huts of Namibia, the yurts of Mongolia, the tatami mats of Tokyo, and the Baby Bjorns of San Francisco. The affluent babies, of course, are more coddled and less likely to be pecked by roosters, but there can be little debate over which is the bleaker prospect: playing in the mud amid goats or having one’s hands clapped together while Mommy and her circle sing, “The Earth is our mother / We must take care of her / Hey yana, ho yana, hey yan, yan … ” The best part is the Japanese baby who tries to put a round block in a hole and keeps falling over with a clunk, but you can picture the mother being restrained off-camera while the filmmaker whispers, “It’s so cute! She won’t break her neck—really!”
American Museum of Natural History bug enthusiast Jessica Oreck trekked to Japan to make Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a close—some might say icky-close—look at the Japanese ardor for insects. The thesis is that revering beetles, crickets, roaches, and the like, as opposed to squashing them or frying them up with seasoned salt, lifts us to a higher plane. I’m not wholly clear on the link between a jellied green thing wriggling along a tree branch and the oneness of life, but Shinto Buddhist ruminations sound good in almost any context, and the film is entrancing.
Best Worst Movie is the overoptimistic title of a film that explores the making and impact of Troll 2, a 1990 horror film that’s nowhere near as fun as Ed Wood’s marvels but shares its demerits: cloddish acting, abysmal effects, and highfalutin but tin-eared dialogue. The gimmick is that BWM’s director, Michael Stephenson, was the (appalling) juvenile in Troll 2 and now seeks out the director and his old cast mates (some of them quite mad) to laugh about the picture’s alleged cult following. It’s amusing for a while—but increasingly, unintentionally grim. It seems that the hunger for celebrity is so fierce that people will exploit anything—even their most embarrassing moments—to attain some measure of it.