Shattered Politics #86: Casino Jack (dir by George Hickenlooper)


Casino_JackI had two reactions to the 2010 film Casino Jack.

My first reaction was to think, “Wow, Kevin Spacey really can act!”  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I knew that, especially when working with a director who is strong enough to curb his natural tendency to go overboard, Kevin Spacey was capable of giving a great performance.  However, Spacey is one of those actors who has such a unique look and style about him that I think sometimes we forget that he’s capable of doing more than just playing variations on Kevin Spacey.*

And it is true that, in the role of real-life Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey gave a performance that was full of the usual Spacey tricks.  By that, I mean we got the Spacey voice going from a purr to a roar in just a manner of seconds.  We got the Spacey glare, where he narrows his eyes and stares at whoever has offended him with an intensity that lets you know that something bad is about to happen.  We got that somewhat strained Kevin Spacey smile, the way facial expression that lets us know that we don’t want to know what’s going on behind that friendly facade.

But, even though Spacey was up to his usual tricks, all of those tricks still came together to create a unique character.  As I watched the film, I forgot that I was watching Kevin Spacey.  Instead, I really felt that I was watching and listening to one of the most powerful lobbyists in American history.

And, when Abramoff was eventually arrested and prosecuted for defrauding his clients, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for him.  Spacey plays the character with such a combination of hyperactive charm and righteous fury that you can’t help but be a little bit enthralled by him.  That’s not to say that Kevin Spacey turns Jack Abramoff into a sympathetic character.  (Indeed, as good as Spacey is, there are a few moments when his contempt for Abramoff comes through and his performance suddenly turns into a one-dimensional caricature.)  But what Spacey does do is show that Jack Abramoff was less an inhuman monster and more the logical product of Washington culture.  The only difference between Abramoff and everyone else in Washington is that Abramoff got caught.

But, at the same time, the move itself is never quite as interesting as Spacey’s lead performance. The movie’s main theme appears to be that Washington is corrupt and we’d do better if we curtailed the power of lobbyists but … well, do you really need a movie to tell you this?  I mean I’m pretty much apolitical and I knew that long before I saw Casino Jack!

Casino Jack: Good performance.  Boring message.  Bleh movie.

* This is better known as the Christopher Walken syndrome.