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Cinema in Focus: ‘Casino Jack’ Right On the Money

The moral is ancient and the morality obvious in the story of Jack Abramoff

3 Stars — Sobering

It was Brit Lord Acton who in 1887 wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” No where is there a better modern-day example of that than in the life of Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist who went to jail in 2006 for a host of corruption charges stemming from his influence peddling in Washington, D.C. Casino Jack tells the story of this man of tremendous skill who had access to every Republican president and congressional leader of the past 25 years.

Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) and Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), the Republican leader in Congress, became close allies. Abramoff had worked his way up the political structure beginning in his college years during the Reagan administration, and used his skill and influence to build one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the history of the country. He counted more than 200 close friends in Congress, the White House and the business community.

Casino Jack takes you through the world of politics mixed with personal ambition and greed. Abramoff became the richest lobbyist in U.S. history by bilking his clients out of millions of dollars in the belief that he could bend the will of the president of the United States and the leaders of Congress. In his quest for money, he invested in offshore casinos, fancy restaurants and questionable business deals — all for personal gain. In reality, he provided little service to his clients, many of whom were people of questionable moral intent.

Being at the center of world power is a tremendous aphrodisiac that can easily overwhelm your senses. Unless you are well-grounded in spiritual values and are surrounded by disinterested friends who will hold you accountable, the ability to see the greater good through the fog of personal ambition is greatly clouded. What at one point in your life might have seemed questionable can quickly become justified behavior.

In the end, Abramoff’s world collapsed along with a number of members of Congress and advisers to the Bush White House because of their laundering of money. Some of those caught in Abramoff’s web are still pending trial. Ironically, Abramoff was released from prison in December, and DeLay was convicted of fraud in Texas this month.

What happens when we begin to believe that good things are coming our way because we are being rewarded for being righteous? The temptation is to believe that the money and power of which we are now a steward is really a reward to us for good behavior. In reality, it is a demonic temptation to cave into greedy illusions about ourselves.

Abramoff and DeLay both came from strong religious backgrounds. Abramoff justified his greed by cloaking it in providing support for Hebrew schools, while DeLay laid claim to bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth. Both men bent or violated the law, and both benefited from the bad behavior of each other while taking great comfort in their belief that “the ends justify the means.”

None of this has to do with who is in the White House. Abuse of power is a form of dry rot that also plagues religious institutions, businesses, corporations and families. No one is immune to its virus. The only inoculation is to humble oneself, seek prayerful guidance and to establish partners in accountability at every step in the process.

We need good leaders in every aspect of our lives, but a good leader is wise to know that they could easily be the first among sinners.


» 1. When we combine money and power, the temptations are exponential. How do you deal with the temptation to use people to gain wealth and position?

» 2. It is often said that the most heinous of all evil resides near the altar of God. Do you believe the wealth and position of U.S. political power is where we will find the most heinous of political evil? If not, where do you think it resides?

» 3. The ability to do good is the call on all people of position, wealth and power. How do you do good with the blessings you have been allowed to steward?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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