The director Alex Gibney now sets the gold standard for documentary muckraking. His movies, like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), are electrifying investigations that probe deep beneath the surface of contemporary events; after you’ve seen one, you feel you know something essential about what’s happened in America that you didn’t grasp before. When Gibney got up at Sundance to introduce his powerful new movie, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, he noted that the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down any and all restrictions on campaign finance had made the film “rivetingly relevant.” He wasn’t being egotistical.
The movie is a look at the corrupt culture spawned by Jack Abramoff, the king of the lobbyists who took influence peddling in Washington to new heights (or depths). I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear the word “lobbyist,” my brain glazes over. Casino Jack woke my brain, and my outrage, right up. It starts off as a fascinating portrait of the college-campus Republicans who came up in the 1980s — men like the Abramoff and the clean-cut, fire-breathing Ralph Reed (is it just me, or has Reed always been an eerie dead ringer for Burt Ward on Batman?), who saw themselves as radicals out to remake America. And here’s the thing, they did. After becoming an Orthodox Jew, the glad-handing, backroom-savvy Abramoff underwent a different sort of conversion: He became the Karl Rove — the amoral visionary — of underground government cash. Building on the lobbyist revolution of the Reagan era, he erected an entire system in which eager dupes — Malaysian dictators, sweatshop owners on the American commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, Indian casinos — would funnel millions upon millions of dollars to Abramoff and his Republican cronies, in what was in effect a protection racket.
His partner was Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives — but, of course, DeLay’s fall from grace, and Abramoff’s conviction in the scandal that brought them both down, is old news. What’s astonishing, and important, about Casino Jack is that it lays out how the system of funneling cash for favors that Abramoff turned into a new kind of government machine, with the money often hidden behind fake nonpartisan organizations, didn’t go away; it took over. It was Jack Abramoff who elevated the lobbyist to the status of shadow legislator. Casino Jack is really a look at how, and why, the government no longer works — how the culture of Washington was effectively rebuilt to sell itself to the highest bidder.
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There’s a fascinating here’s how he does it moment in Smash His Camera, Leon Gast’s dishy and elegant portrait of Ron Galella — the most famous of all paparazzi, the most trail-blazing and artful, and also the most blood-boilingly villified. (When you become the enemy of Jackie Kennedy, you’re bound to make a lot of other people hate you.) Gallella, who began to stalk celebrities half a century ago and is still at it in his late 70s, describes how he stares through the lens of the camera — or, more to the point, how he doesn’t bother to. He’d rather look directly into the eyes of the star he’s ambushing; the shot, he says, is really about their relationship.
That, suggests the movie, is the real mystique of the paparazzi: Some may dismiss them as sleazy borderline sociopaths, but the big picture is one of grand connection — between the celebrity and the photographer and the media and us, the audience that harbors an essential, almost childlike human curiosity to know what stars are truly like when they aren’t posing. Galella, who shares great tales of hiding in bushes and also tips for sneaking into awards banquets, once got five teeth knocked out by Marlon Brando, and he pestered Jackie O so relentlessly that she took him to court in a case that still reverberates with the friction between the conflicting rights to privacy and free speech. And yet, in her way, she needed him too. (Her maid revealed to Galetta that Jackie scrupulously saved all the gossip magazines about her.) Their symbiotic dance culminates in what Galella calls his “Mona Lisa” shot: an image of Jackie crossing 5th Avenue, softly gorgeous in windblown hair. Smash His Camera makes you see why Ron Galella was Andy Warhol’s favorite photographer. Galella’s photographs — millions of them, all archived, many now showcased in museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art — are raw, beautiful, shocking, tender, fascinating, and real. They’re proof that starting in the late 20th century, art and voyeurism could no longer be separated.
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It’s doubtful that you’ll ever see a combat documentary that channels the chaos of war as thoroughly as Restrepo. The movie was co-directed by the author and journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm), working with Tim Hetherington, and much of it is so jittery and existential and, to be perfectly blunt about it, slapped together that, at times, you may feel like you’re watching some cell-phone-video version of raw author’s notes for a lofty men’s magazine article on the war in Afghanistan that Junger never quite got around to writing.
Junger and Hetherington spent close to a year hanging out with the Second Platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a Taliban stronghold described as the most dangerous spot in the country. Much of what we’re always told about the impossibility of combat in Afghanistan — the relentless, rocky terrain that’s like a series of geological booby traps, the tribal intransigence — becomes vividly apparent in this film. So does the utter futility of the platoon’s reason for being in the Korengal Valley in the first place. The firefights in Restrepo are random spews of hot-light gunfire in which all strategy and meaning disappear. The soldiers obviously care deeply about each other, and when one of them — Private Juan Restrepo — gets killed, and the other men name an outpost after him, it has a resonance for them that it can’t possibly have for us. Yet maybe part of the reason for that is that the film, for all the you are there skitteriness of its images, rarely invites us into the soldier’s heads; if anything, it shuts us out. I was glad I saw Restrepo, but even though it’s one of the most acclaimed films at the festival, I found it to be a case of the imitative fallacy, turning the insular, fractious horror of war into an insular, fractious movie.
More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:
More from EW at Sundance 2010: