Casino Jack is an exhaustive documentary—in terms of both content and duration—because its subject, Jack Abramoff, is a freak of all trades: He was the most powerful lobbyist in America for a time; he can squat 500 pounds; he bilked Native American tribes out of millions of dollars; he helped sweatshop owners in Saipan produce cheap clothing labeled "Made in the USA"; he cowrote and produced the 1989 action/spy thriller Red Scorpion starring Dolph Lundgren; and, in 2006, he became a convict.
The film builds on archival footage and interviews with Abramoff associates, including former representative Tom DeLay and former representative Robert Ney, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for taking bribes from Abramoff. We watch as Abramoff matures from a 12-year-old boy who converted to Orthodox Judaism after watching Fiddler on the Roof to chairman of the College Republican National Committee. We see his ascent to power as he builds his pay-to-play empire by limiting access to politicians—predominantly House majority leader DeLay. Abramoff arranges golfing trips to Saipan for politicians, and in exchange they turn a blind eye to the slave labor fueling Saipan's clothing industry. When one sweatshop employee asks a visiting politician, "Will you buy my kidney so I can go home?" or when a narrator reads e-mails between Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, as they plot to rob their tribal clients ("Stupid people get wiped out"), the mind reels.
But for all its great detail, the film lacks two things: screen time with its subject, Abramoff, and concordantly, the satisfaction of watching him squirm. In 2005, Abramoff and Scanlon were accused of grossly overbilling tribal clients and secretly lobbying against them in order to force them to pay more for services. Once he's caught, you want to see Abramoff sweat. Stutter. Shit himself and cry. A small satisfaction comes from watching footage of Abramoff—a man once described as having the ability to "sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck"—seated before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, forced to listen as his brutal e-mails are read aloud.
In the end, Abramoff is the poster child for campaign finance reform. But the payoff of watching Abramoff plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials after two hours of being a supreme evil dickhead isn't there. His downfall should be our happy ending, but it's not.