(2010; aka Casino Jack)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

As I write this, in late 2010, lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a stale topic. About the only thing I remembered about him before watching this movie is that he wore a scary gangster-style fedora, and that there was a time when anyone who had ever been in contact with Abramoff had done his or her best to eradicate all traces of the relationship, however insignificant it might have been. Photos were burned, hard drives were re-formatted, e-mails were deleted, and phone messages were erased. When the Abramoff news started to break, everybody touched by the scandal seemed to realize that Jack had gone over the top with sleaze, even by the standards of a sleazy profession, and that it had been a mistake to associate with him, especially given the feeding frenzy then current in the media. 

Those were simply my preconceived impressions and perceptions, but in researching the background behind this film, I've discovered that my simplistic top-line take on it was not too far from the truth. Jack Abramoff provided many people with cash and privileges, and almost all of them knew that the checks came with strings attached, even when there was nothing explicitly illegal about the transaction, because the boldest lobbyists always operate on the grey fringes of legality, out beyond the safe areas where society's laws and morals are in complete confluence. Whenever a policymaker accepted a campaign contribution from an Abramoff client, that lawmaker knew that he had been compromised in some way, even if he did not quite understand what might eventually be expected of him in return. That's how our lobbying system works in America. It is the watered-down American equivalent of the institutionalized corruption that plagues Eastern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. It's an oblique form of bribery, in that there is generally no stated tit-for-tat, but a set of unspoken assumptions and expectations. It can also be far more pernicious than outright bribery, because bribes, by their nature, come with a certain accountability. The South American lawmaker who fails to deliver on the explicit stipulations attached to a generous gift from the drug cartel will probably find himself paying the price for his duplicity, one way or another. Perhaps his political opponents will have enough power to jail him or remove him from office. He better hope they get to him before the drug lords do.

The American system of bribery comes without accountability, assuming that the players are sufficiently cautious. An Indian tribe pays a lobbyist for representation. The lobbyist makes some campaign contributions on the tribe's behalf, delivered with an emotional speech about how the tribe's children could get health care and education if only some nice, clean, honest casinos could be legally operated on Indian land. The tribe gets casinos approved. Everybody is happy, nobody has broken any laws, and nobody owes any taxes. An outright bribe would not be tax-deductible, of course, but paying "legal fees" to the lobbyist's law firm is a legitimate business expense for the tribe, which is a corporation. The lack of accountability comes from the fact that the lawmaker doesn't have to vote for the casinos, and his failure to do so will result in no violence or public accusations. But, of course, he won't be getting any more such opportunities. So (almost) everyone learns to play ball, because nobody wants to kill a goose that lays golden eggs.

The whole process is sleazy. It corrupts individuals with irresistible temptations, and it undermines a system of government that should theoretically be the best in the world. You probably consider the whole business immoral as well, depending on your own concept of morality.

It may be unethical, but it's legal, provided that one does not stray from that exact path.

Jack Abramoff could have continued to do it that way for the rest of his life, the same way all the other lobbyists do it, and he would have lived an extremely comfortable life without ever facing any jail time or public humiliation. He chose a different route. He wanted to wield true power with truly big money, so he started to play the game in ways that crossed the line.

  • He directed some of his clients' money to people who kicked a percentage back to him.
  • When his clients looked for investors, he tried to figure out how he could get a piece of the pie for himself, sometimes a very big piece.
  • He and certain public officials got a bit too public when Abramoff courted their influence, as highlighted by an infamous golfing excursion to Scotland.

This movie tells a few stories about how Abramoff and some of his associates went beyond the limits. The two areas of greatest focus are the kickbacks Abramoff hauled in from his bilking of the Native-American tribes, and his ill-advised attempt to acquire the SunCruz floating casinos

If you go into this film expecting some kind of heavy-handed anti-Abramoff hatchet job, you'll be very surprised. Although the film does not whitewash Abramoff, it never fails to show that there was always somebody just as bad, or worse, in the room. Abramoff is shown being horrified by the lengths his business partners would go to make something work in their favor. He is shown as the more responsible and moral partner in his dealings with Michael Scanlon, who helped him bilk the Indians. He is also shown as the more sensible and moral partner in his dealings with Adam Kidan, his associate in the attempted SunCruz acquisition. Abramoff is also shown as a good family man, a spiritual man who acknowledges his failings, and a man who tried to do good things with his money, even if he always seemed to spoil his good intentions with a massive ego and a faulty moral compass. Kevin Spacey doesn't make Abramoff likeable, but he does make him completely human. The Abramoff of this film is a lot like most of us, except that he plays for much higher stakes.

The film is also a lot more amusing than you would probably expect. The film's creators have decided to deal with co-conspirators Michael Scanlon and Adam Kidan, as well as lawmakers Tom Delay and Bob Ney, by ridiculing them as buffoons. Kidan, for example, is played by Jon Lovitz, and the character is milked for more laughs than you'd expect in a film about the deepest levels of corruption of the American political system. Bagman is not a heavy-handed liberal sermon film, or a film with a great deal of depth. The tone is generally light. It is best characterized as a sweeping entertainment picture about a gang that couldn't shoot straight.

Is it factually accurate? Kinda. You should not assume that this movie is a documentary or a historical recreation. The opening credits say that it is "based on real events." If you speak fluent studio, you know that phrase means the authors felt free to embellish the truth. The script does not try to stay factual down to the last detail, and the conversations are mostly imagined by the authors, based upon the known facts and the personalities of the characters. On the other hand, I caught up on all the Abramoff cases before writing this article, and it seems to me that the film portrays all the situations reasonably. Where the truth has been embellished, it has not been done to push a point of view, but to tell a good story.


Not currently available






60 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
70 (of 100)











7.7 IMDB summary (of 10)











Will open December 17









The only nudity comes from two random unidentified hookers whom Kidan (Jon Lovitz) hired to make it more fun to run a cruise ship line.










Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


I was surprised by how much I liked it. I was expecting a heavy-handed hatchet job, or an arthouse political sermon like Fair Game. Amazingly enough in light of the subject matter, it is simply an entertainment film. Its subject is probably not of sufficiently broad interest to assure mainstream success, but it is, in fact,  a constantly entertaining film.