Conversation: Director Alex Gibney on ‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money’

BY Molly Finnegan  May 14, 2010 at 2:09 PM EDT

It involves casinos, the murder of a Greek tycoon, intrigue in Washington and much more. But the film, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” is a documentary unwinding the trail of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff — once a powerful player in the nation’s capital, now a convicted felon serving time in prison.

Director Alex Gibney is also known for his films “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2008. He’s also an occasional blogger for the Atlantic.

He joined me by phone from New York:

 
Watch the trailer for “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”:

 
Full transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was in the headlines in 2004, 2005. When did you decide that it was something you had to take on, what sealed the deal?

ALEX GIBNEY: It was just such a spectacular story. I mean, it was almost something out of spy thriller, going from arms deals on the West Bank to sweat shops in the Marianas Islands, to a mob hit in Miami, to Indian casinos, to trips to Russia and Scotland, and then all sorts of skulduggery in the nation’s capital. It was just hard to resist.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much did you know about all that — about him and these layers, the history that was behind him, the group of young conservative activists that he was part of?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, that was the part of the story that I didn’t know as much about when I started, and it became one of the more intriguing parts, too, this idea that these right wing Leninists really were sort of plotting how they would infiltrate the government and take it over, which in a sense I suppose they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking about people like Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist — people who became very establishment figures.

ALEX GIBNEY: That’s absolutely right. These guys who, when they were young, were really campus radicals — you couldn’t even call them campus activists, they were campus radicals. But they came to be very much establishment figures, like Ralph Reed became head of the Christian Coalition and Grover Norquist becomes this anti-tax crusader, very influential in terms of Newt Gingrich’s platform. So, you know, these guys came to be at the center of what was the Republican revolution in 1994. And then their access and their influence begins to turn corrupt.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did you come to see Abramoff as a true believer, in a sense, who later turned to kind of schemes and power plays, or — who was he?

ALEX GIBNEY: He was a zealot. And I think his zealousness, the belief in his cause, and his cause was both a virulent anti-communism, which took him to having a kind of right wing Woodstock in Angola with the blood thirsty dictator Jonas Savimbi, and later going on to produce wild movies — you know, action thrillers with Dolph Lundgren that tried to, you know, take on the anti-Soviet cause, but also an anti-government, libertarian conservative. But I think it was really his zealousness that led him to corruption. You know, once you believe that the end justifies the means, you can go pretty far afield and then you wake up one day and you realize, ‘Oh my God, not only have I crossed the line, but I crossed it a long, long time ago.’

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve mentioned some of the stops along the way, and we can’t go through all the incredible detail here, but it really does become a kind of drama about how Washington works, how money flows, and how ultimately, sometimes, corruption can occur at that intersection of policy and money. Is that what you were ultimately after? Were you surprised with what you found?

ALEX GIBNEY: I was surprised at just how bad it is. I mean, I — you know, Washington is not my town. I was interested in how this affects — how this process of the need to raise so much money and how lobbyists worked to supply that money — how that worked with our government, our system of democracy. But I have to confess that I was pretty shocked at just how bad it is that we have a system now of “pay to play.” And it’s very insidious, because it’s not always quid pro quo, in fact it’s very rarely quid pro quo. It’s just that, you know, congress people and senators have to spend sometimes two to three days out of every work week, raising enough money to get elected. Not only is it bad that we’re paying them to get elected, but the idea that they have to raise so much money really makes them very vulnerable to those who have the money and can, you know, ply enormous influence, because they are able to grease their palms with silver.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anybody who sees this is going to wonder how — a little bit about the process here, especially getting some of these people to talk to you so candidly: former Congressman Bob Ney, Neil Volz, part of the Abramoff team, convicted of conspiracy. Was that hard for you? How did it happen?

ALEX GIBNEY: It was very hard. I mean, you know, with this project as with ‘Enron’ and ‘Taxi to the Dark Side,’ I started out and nobody wanted to talk and I couldn’t find any materials to show. It’s a slow process. But bit-by-bit-by-bit, you get one person to talk, perhaps they call a friend or a colleague, somebody else talks and you stay persistent, and try to find different ways in, until you hope that you convince people that, you know, what you are doing is important and that they have an important story to tell. And I think Bob Ney, when he got out of prison, we were finally able to convince him that it was important for him to talk about what had happened because that was a way of going forward. In order to go forward, he had to go back and reckon with what he had done, and that teaches us all a lot about how government works.

JEFFREY BROWN: You start the film with an email from Jack Abramoff himself, writing to you, where he says, “No one watches documentaries, you should make an action movie”? [Laughs] And of course, that we later learned that he was very much into action movies, as you show him as a sort of wannabe movie mogul himself. But I guess you never considered that approach, right? The drama?

ALEX GIBNEY: Not for this one, because I know there is another film called — at least for the moment — “Casino Jack” — I think they are changing their title, but — starring Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff. I’ve seen the film, and Kevin Spacey is magnificent in it, but I can tell you he is no Jack Abramoff. Jack Abramoff himself, as a character, is just so larger-than-life. Sometimes, you know, nonfiction is just so unbelievable that you have to tell that nonfiction story, because it’s actually more spectacular than fiction. Some of this stuff you would not believe on the big screen. It’s just too incredible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just explore that role of the documentarian nowadays, or at least how you see it. What is the role? You take on very tough subjects, very painful, and depressing subjects sometimes. What are you after? Who are these for, what are they trying to do?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, they’re for all of us. I mean, and I try to put them together as movies that are entertaining and engaging, you know, because they have a very powerful story to tell. But at the heart is really an investigation into corruption and how good people go bad. And that’s a very important thing for us to understand. I’m really more interested in the perps than the victims, because that’s the only way you can prevent these crimes from taking place. You know, all of us have a responsibility in a democracy to try to fix what’s broken. And the only way you can figure that out, to figure out how to do that, is to figure out why it’s broken and to find that out, you have to go to the heart of corruption.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are you working on now?

ALEX GIBNEY: I’ve just finished a film about Eliot Spitzer, which we’re actually tinkering with after its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival as a work in progress. And then I’m also doing a different kind of film, which is fun, on Lance Armstrong. And I had a piece in a film about Freakonomics, that book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yeah. It’s an omnibus film, a number of different directors — Morgan Spurlock, who did ‘Supersize Me,’ and Eugene Jarecki, who did ‘Why We Fight.’ All of us took a story from the Freakonomics book and made a, you know, film sections about it. I took on [laughs] a pretty heavy topic. It’s about sumo wrestling. So it’s heavy and —

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally heavy.

ALEX GIBNEY: Literally heavy, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, well, this film is ‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money.’ Alex Gibney, thanks for talking with us.

ALEX GIBNEY: Great. Thanks very much.