Money is power, and all things flow from that.  So it would seem in the world today, or at least in Jack Abramhoff’s world, the subject of this documentary from the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side (Oscar nominated and Oscar winning, respectively).  I don’t see this movie being in the same league as the previous two (I will have to watch them to be sure), but it is very informative about the nature of humankind in the world and the greed inherent within.

Lobbying is nothing new in Washington.  Special interests usually dominate over other matters, and if you pull for a specific special interest, then you’ll be rewarded come election time.  The system works like that (however fixed or broken it may be).  Abramhoff was the best at it though.  He was a smooth talker, he was smart, and he had a lot of allies, many of which he bought with money.  He knew the loopholes to get things done, and he knew how to get things killed too if they didn’t appease him.  His back story placed him in the conservative movement around the time of Reagan, where no government was best and everyone loved him.  Abramhoff was part of the College Republicans, a group of college-aged Republicans who made the Republican Party and conservatism cool for young people (the old adage always went: Democrats (progressives, leftists (I refuse to use liberal because the term is often misused)) thought with their heart, Republicans thought with their heads).  They lived by the law of the jungle, as they say.  They supported revolutionary groups against communism, often traveling to Afghanistan, Central America, and Central and Southern Africa in support of these groups, though they were often quite shady indeed (which isn’t new: support the person who’ll support you, yet turn a blind eye to the human rights issue caused by their actions).

Abramhoff didn’t get his full influence going though until Republicans took over Congress in 1994.  It was then that he really flexed his muscles (quite literally, he was a very imposing figure, having been a champion weight lifter in high school or college).  It’s hard to describe in summarizing detail what he did, as the documentary is full of details, but he had a variety of ventures both in America and around the world: the Mariana Islands (and in its capital, Saipan), Native American reservations (this would get him in the biggest trouble) and their casinos, and a floating casino, amongst others.  He supported people that supported his cause of deregulation, and got it in Senate Majority leader Tom DeLay.  Towards the end of his run as a lobbyist in Washington, Abramhoff had dealings with at least twenty Senate and House Congressman, those who supported him and he supported.

What got him into the biggest trouble was a kick back scheme hatched with a former representative’s staff member.  They would take large sums of money (six and seven figures) and split it between themselves, with most of this money coming from reservations.  They often acted in getting these casinos shut down, then would pit the casino owners against each other in either keeping one open or preventing others from getting closed.  Again, the amount of detail is staggering, and no summarizing would do this justice, but Abramhoff did a lot, reap a lot, and paid the price.

If I have one main criticism of this film, it’s that the filmmakers didn’t (or couldn’t) interview Abramhoff himself.  Given his non-committal answers during the Senate hearings, it would have been interesting to hear why Abramhoff did what he did.  Granted, he probably would have been barred from saying anything given that he may be still assisting the government in figuring out who he helped (both Republicans and Democrats alike), but if this were made after his prison sentence (which is ending at some point soon, right?  Four years, convicted in 2006, I think the math adds up), it would have been interesting to see him in a one-on-one interview.  The profile created by the film with the news clippings and filmed instances of him talking helps, but nothing works better than the direct source.

The film also creates, in some way, an interesting juxtaposition between regulation and deregulation.  It does attack deregulation a lot, especially in light of the housing market crash and the banking failure in 2008.  Deregulation works to an extent, until people start getting greedy.  It’s inherent in all people: I want this, and I want more, and I won’t stop until I get it.  Banks made tons of money off of people who couldn’t afford houses, and everything imploded (the blame falls on the banks, yes, but also on the people who thought they could live beyond their means).  Regulation works to a certain extent as well, until too much regulation strangles people and causes anti-government backlash (kind of like what’s happening right now).  In short, the happy ongoing battle between capitalism and socialism, both equally flawed systems.

Still, this is a good documentary.  Do pay attention though, if you can.  This is a long documentary (at two hours, one of the longest, if not the longest I’ve seen yet), and there is a whole lot going on.  The filmmakers do a great job of laying everything out and connecting the pieces though, even if you’re not getting it the first time.

B+

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