The Arty Semite

Jack Abramoff's Religious Escape Hatch

By John Semley

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy TIFF
Kevin Spacey plays a mobbed-up Jack Abramoff, complete with black fedora.

Before Jack Abramoff was an American super-lobbyist, half-successful restaurateur, and convicted con man, he was a movie producer, known for bankrolling the 1989 Dolph Lundgren actioner “Red Scorpion” (part of Cold War cinema’s deconstructionist, though still violently anti-Soviet phase). It’s appropriate then, that George Hickenlooper’s Abramoff biopic, “Casino Jack,” which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, should evince such an obvious love of cinema.

The film’s opening scene — which is difficult to place in its larger chronology — shows Abramoff (played by Kevin Spacey) staring down his reflection in a bathroom mirror, fortifying his ego against the onslaught of Washington Post reporters, IRS bean counters, and Indian Affairs commissioners encircling him. It’s a scene that instantly recalls Robert DeNiro’s backstage monologue in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,“ which itself references Marlon Brando’s famous “I could have been a contender” bit in Elia Kazan’s “On The Waterfront.” But it also recalls another, earlier, DeNiro monologue delivered as the maladjusted Vietnam discharge Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Just like Bickle, Abramoff (or at least Hickenlooper and Spacey’s Abramoff) has come to regard himself as God’s lonely man.

“Casino Jack” unfolds very much in the style of a mafia movie, and not as the sort of political potboiler suggested by its subject matter. Like “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” or any given episode of “The Sopranos,” Hickenlooper’s film drops the viewer well behind enemy lines, into the territory of insider jargon, topsy-turvy morality, and charismatic bad guys we’re forced into forging alliances with. And just as any mob movie will purge its protagonists’ violence in the flames of Catholic guilt, so too “Casino Jack” provides its hero with his own religious escape hatch.

Hickenlooper’s film places particular importance on Abramoff’s fealty to Judaism. It’s not just that he describes himself as doing “God’s work.” His religion inflects everything he does. From his politics (in one scene he lectures on how Republican Party policies realize the vision of the God of Abraham) to his taste in films (he acknowledges the role “Fiddler on the Roof” played in making him “want to be a real Jew”). Where the traditional movie mobster can absolve their sins in the time it takes to haul off a few Hail Marys and canoodle their rosary, Spacey’s Jack Abramoff pays similar lip service to his God, dutifully wearing his yarmulke underneath a Don Corleone-style walking hat.

What “Casino Jack” suffers from is its refusal to cast any real aspersions on Abramoff. The film is too wrapped up in its cinephilic adoration of his hardnosed, quick-witted, movie-quoting, Torah-belting character, and far too willing to indulge his “God’s lonely man” martyr complex. In keeping with its Capitol Hill wiseguys program, the film makes spending time with Spacey’s charismatic Abramoff too gratifying, and never pulls that plush rug out from under us. It’s this uneasy allegiance to Abramoff that stymies “Casino Jack.” The film never seems to resolve how exactly it wants to portray him — a pillar of Republicanism, a victim of his own ambition, a Washington Don, or a Zionist thug — and it flails around, trying to have it every which way at once. With the film itself so confused, it’s little surprise that a viewer unschooled in Abramoff’s wheelings-and-dealings may leave “Casino Jack” unsure of what to make of its protagonist. Or is he the antagonist? Well, in any event the guy sure loves movies.

Watch the Trailer for ‘Casino Jack’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Travis Bickle, The Sopranos, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Marlon Brando, Kevin Spacey, John Semley, Jack Abramoff, Goodfellas, Film, George Hickenlooper, Fiddler on the Roof, Elia Kazan, Don Corleone, Casino Jack, Dolph Lundgren

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.