Reviews Of Casino
Jack And The United States Of Money, The Fall Of Fujimori, And The War On
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/6/13
It’s odd how often one finds oneself watching a string of documentary films on related subjects. Such was the case, recently, when politics dominated my watching.
The first of the documentaries I watched was by Alex Gibney, who previously wrought the superb Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, in 2005. In 2010 he released another great documentary on American capitalism, called Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, which followed the life and legacy of Republican lobbyist and organized criminal Jack Abramoff, whose filthy dealings extended from sweatshop owners in Saipan to perpetrating frauds on casinos run by Indian tribes, to involvement in a hit on a business rival ordered by members of New York’s Gambino crime family, to supporting anti-abortion Christian Fundamentalists. The 118 minute long film is not what one would call epic, in its use of time, but thorough.
It neatly and effectively shows how capitalism is just as bad, corrupt, and unethical a system of governance as fascism or communism, but how it has outlasted those systems by better being able to sell its pros to the unwitting masses, while hiding its flaws equally as well; and no person exemplifies that paradigm in the last few decades as Jack Abramoff, an unscrupulous egomaniac whose very ego has become the blueprint for the modern capitalist cum political opportunist: be all style and fake all substance. The film shows how Abramoff, who was sent to jail in 2006, lived in a fantasy world for much of his adult life- converting to Orthodox Judaism, then cozying up to the white power elite of the Christian Coalition, producing Right Wing action films in the 1980s, and all under the cultic influence of Milton Friedman, the Right Wing economist whose now discredited laissez-faire deregulation dogma led up to the financial crisis of the last few years, as he cozied up to the likes of Ralph Reed, Karl Rover, Grover Norquist, Tom Delay, and George W. Bush. In short, if there was a racket in America that jack Abramoff was not involved in, at some level, this documentary has borne its lone flaw.
In all other aspects- from the cinematography of Maryse Alberti, the editing of Alison Ellwood, and the scoring of David Robbins, Casino Jack And The United States Of Money is flawless. It all works in one perfect tuning fork uncovering the corruption that is so routine in the politics and governance of America that it makes one wonder how anyone still naively believes in fairness. While Casino Jack And The United States Of Money charts political corruption from the very start of the system it examines, the next film charts corruption in the process of a seemingly idealistic political revolution.
The film ends in 2005, with Fujimori living the good life, as a hero to Right Wingers in Japan, and Peruvian causes seeking his return to their country for trial. It would happen, not long afterwards, and Fujimori is currently serving a 25 year sentence in a Peruvian jail, but the film does an excellent job of balancing out the claims of extremists on both sides, as well as the moderate middle, and, remarkably, the majority of Peruvians approved, and still approve, of Fujimori’s methods and tenure. After all, one cannot make the omelet of democracy without cracking a few eggs, his supporters claim.
Yet, one quickly sees that Fujimori, for all of his flaws, is clearly a pragmatic man, and the views of him, by both his enemies and supporters, look rather naïve by contrast. The same goes for the film about him, which stands in sharp contrast to the third film on politics that I watched.
That film would be the 93 minute long 2007 documentary, The War On Democracy, by Left Wing Australian journalist John Pilger. This film is so biased and so skewed to the far left side of political reality that there are only two good things one can say about it: 1) it makes no effort to hide its blatant agitprop biases, and 2) it’s told in an almost purely melodramatic style that allows for even bitter political opponents of its claims at least gain a guilty pleasure from watching Pilger pontificate on subjects that he is absolutely correct on, as well as those he is in murky waters on, and those for which he is 100% in the wrong. Needless to say, while The War On Democracy is not nearly as scrupulously researched a film as its two predecessors, it is, by a wide margin, the most fun of the trio to watch.
The film accurately posits the United States’ relentless use of puppet governments around the world, but especially in Latin America. This is certainly indisputable, and has gone on for over two centuries; even giving rise to the moniker Ugly American. The film does detail major wrongs committed by the U.S., from the overthrow of elected governments that simply disagreed with U.S. policy (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile are examined in the film), to failed coups in Cuba and Venezuela (where Pilger shows how videotape of supposed government death squads were really pro-government supporters resisting Right Wing violence, and how this fraud was repeated on American nightly newscasts, with no retraction when the fraud was later exposed), to the generally dismissive attitude of America’s power elite, and their cronies in these Third World nations. The film also rightly contrasts the blatant hypocrisy of America’s claims for being democracy’s leading light with its actual record in such matters, and we simply come up far short in that area; just as we have in dealings with African slaves, Native Americans, and the subjugation of assorted groups in our history, from women to immigrants to homosexuals.
However, to watch this film one would not recognize the many causes for democracy the U.S. has stood out in- from World Wars One and Two to the fall of the Soviet Union to the just recent Arab Spring. And the people that Pilger holds up as ideals of his side of the political coin are just as noxious as those he accuses America of supporting: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (who never directly answers any of Pilger’s softball questions), and Fidel Castro in Cuba: mass murdering thugs, one and all. In fact, much of Pilger’s credibility goes out the window when he lauds the Cuban Revolution for its ability to ameliorate education and healthcare in Cuba. All that nation’s problems, he claims, stem from America’s embargo on the island. Yet, very few other countries honor that, so Cuba has had unfettered access to trade with most of the rest of the world, and it’s still a sewer, and the Castro family has plundered that nation’s wealth every bit as ruthlessly as Augusto Pinochet’s regime did in Argentian, after his coup successfully deposed Salvador Allende in the 1970s, thus proving that the Big Government Socialism Pilger favors is as bad as Big Corporate Fascism he claims the U.S. supports. In short, politics does not fall along a straight line, but a 360° ring, and go far enough in either extreme direction and the dark maw of reality will devour your soul.
Overall, the film succeeds, but more because of its melodramatic confrontations between Pilger and his talking head adversaries, and the sycophantic and idolizing interview with Chavez (who is never even asked why poverty has increased in his country while his own personal fortune has skyrocketed), than substantive and unbiased reporting.
All three films- Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, The Fall Of Fujimori, and The War On Democracy get recommendations for viewing from me, but in clearly descending order of filmic and journalistic excellence. The first film is a great one, the second a very good and informative one, while the third film is the journalistic equivalent of cotton candy- tasty, but it will rot your mind. You’ve got your opinions, now use them.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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