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!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • 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.