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12.17.10

Jack Abramoff's Redemption

In Casino Jack, Kevin Spacey plays the dirtied lobbyist with a gutsy flair that renders him hopelessly charming. Lloyd Grove on what else the film gets right—and where it goes wrong.

He might not realize it, but Jack Abramoff owes a huge debt of gratitude to Kevin Spacey, who portrays the criminally corrupt Washington lobbyist in Casino Jack.

It is, first of all, a seductively pleasurable movie, directed with fierce urgency and a flair for dark comedy by George Hickenlooper, who regrettably died in October at age 47.

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Norman Snider's screenplay—which capably distills the complications of a real-life Washington scandal into a gripping Hollywood narrative—sacrifices nuance on the altar of entertainment and fiddles with minor details. So, occasionally, does the casting. My pal Emily Miller, the wronged ex-fiancée of sleazebag lobbyist Michael Scanlon, is a good eight inches shorter, and 10 notches more effusive, than Rachelle Lefevre, the actress who plays her; and I've never heard my longtime Washington Post colleague, former investigative reporter Susan Schmidt, call herself anything but "Sue."

Republican tax-cut guru Grover Norquist is wonkier and wittier than the movie's doltish portrayal suggests; nor is he a chain-smoker. And unlike his depiction, former House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay of Sugar Land, Texas, was, at the time of the unfolding lobbying scandal, an inveterate tobacco-chewer—think of the actorly possibilities unrealized!—and happens to be an infinitely more vivid character than his big-screen avatar.

Yet Casino Jack does capture an essential truth about the grubby business of politics in the nation's capital: It is mainly, if not entirely, about ego. Ideology and conviction are often pretexts for living large.

And here's why the 50-year-old Abramoff—who was released a mere two weeks ago from a Baltimore halfway house and left his minimum-wage job making kosher pizzas after serving 3½ years of a six-year sentence for federal fraud and corruption convictions—should send Spacey a tasty pie with all the trimmings: Yes, the film outs him as a rage-filled, thieving, megalomaniacal sociopath who bilked Indian tribes while pretending to protect their gaming operations. But Spacey makes Abramoff an enormously appealing, rage-filled, thieving, megalomaniacal sociopath.

Demonstrating once again why he's considered one of the more gifted actors on either side of the Atlantic, Spacey gives us a rich, multilayered antihero. He plays Abramoff—a fanatical weight-trainer whose mantra is "I work out every day!"—as a mensch in his own mind (a family man who treasures his wife and five kids), a charismatic cockeyed optimist with a fondness for grandiosity, and a walking paradox who seamlessly blends his devout Orthodox Judaism with a vile tongue and rank cupidity, and his cultured appreciation of music and the cinema with villainous treatment of clients.

Yet Spacey's Jack is also a charmer who can talk to anyone, be he the president of the United States (who greets him in the Oval Office as "Buff Guy!") or the tattooed thug sharing his holding cell. Who wouldn't want to have a beer with this man?

At a Cinema Society party after Thursday night's screening of Casino Jack in Manhattan, Spacey told me he worked diligently to humanize Abramoff, interviewing several of the disgraced lobbyist's friends to discover a surprisingly playful side—his penchant for doing spot-on impressions of film stars and acting out classic movie scenes.

Spacey makes Abramoff an enormously appealing rage-filled, thieving, megalomaniacal sociopath.

Kevin Sessums talks to Kevin SpaceyDirector Hickenlooper picked up on this leitmotif, punctuating Casino Jack with homages to Jerry Maguire, American Beauty and especially The Godfather II. There's a deftly funny fantasy sequence involving a Senate hearing that is pure Al Pacino. When he dreams his own impossible dream, Jack Abramoff is not so much Don Quixote as Don Corleone.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.