Sundance Reveals the Dark Underside of Political Financing in the USA
Filmmaker Alex Gibney's new documentary, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" - an expose of US campaign financing focused on Jack Abramoff premiering at the Sundance Festival this week - could hardly be better timed, so soon after the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision. (Photo: Voice of America; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)
At the Sundance Festival, American documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney recounts the descent into hell of the former lobbyist with links to the Republican Party, Jack Abramoff, offering an indictment of the corruption that infects political financing in the United States.
Alex Gibney, a Sundance regular, won an Oscar in 2008 with "Taxi to the Dark Side," a documentary about the acts of torture Americans practiced in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the prison at Guantanamo.
His latest film, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money", is presented in competition at the independent film festival that is taking place in Park City, Utah, until Sunday.
In the film, the director, in a deeply ironic mode, recounts the glory days and decline of Jack Abramoff - presently serving a six-year prison sentence for bribery - who also took several members of the Republican Party who profited from his largesse down along with him when he fell.
"In many respects, Abramoff was simultaneously extremely serious and deeply ridiculous," Alex Gibney declared to AFP. "And some things were too bizarre and amusing to be treated in a serious way. You had to laugh and cry at once. It's a comedy, but the joke's on us," he says.
Jack Abramoff, a staunch Republican "who saw his life as an action movie" - he was also a movie producer - embodied all the excess of American lobbying, with its millions of dollars spent to attract the good graces of members of Congress.
Alex Gibney hopes his film will open the eyes of his fellow citizens by "showing people how it works. When you go into the back kitchens of a sausage-making factory, it's rather frightening. Well, then, this film takes you into the (campaign financing) kitchen and it's not pretty."
"In what other country in the world, aside from the most deeply corrupted ones such as Indonesia or Nigeria, is money as openly distributed to buy and sell political officials? It's profoundly shocking," deplores Alex Gibney.
He considers it was Ronald Reagan's accession to the presidency in 1981 that saw the United States "change its fundamental principles." Gibney said, "We made money the sovereign principle through which everything had to be measured: success, failure, and now the political system.
"In the United States, bribery is legal and it's terrifying," the film-maker asserts. Election campaign financing, very lightly supervised in the United States, "is a system that legalizes bribery. How can we put up with that?" he wonders.
"Abramoff and people like him are political terrorists," he deems. "They don't use a revolver, but they want to destroy the government since, fundamentally, they don't believe in its principles. They believe in a kind of libertarian law of the jungle."
The film debuts just as the United States Supreme Court has lifted the limits on corporate financing of national electoral campaigns, a revolution in American electoral law that had limited this right for twenty years.
Alex Gibney makes the case for "a system of public campaign finance. We must achieve that, or else we're damned," he says, nonetheless convinced that it is still "possible to change the situation."
In a certain sense, "Jack Abramoff did us a great service," the filmmaker observes. "He showed us in a spectacular way how bad (the system) was. We should be profoundly grateful to him for that."