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Avarice, murder, love and lunacy

By Iris Mann

November 23, 2010 | 10:38 am

Kevin Spacey, second from right, stars in "Casino Jack," opening Dec. 17.

Kevin Spacey, second from right, stars in "Casino Jack," opening Dec. 17.

The holiday season is prime movie-going time, with many new films slated to open. Outstanding performances by stellar actors abound, and some hold the promise of Oscar worthiness. Among the notable productions are two films based on real-life events full of excitement and intrigue. We offer a look at a handful of new releases coming soon to a theater near you.

“Casino Jack,” which will be in theaters Dec. 17, chronicles the exploits of notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff (starring Kevin Spacey — see interview with Spacey on Page 6), who was sentenced to federal prison on charges including fraud, the corrupting of public officeholders and conspiracy. Earlier this year, he was transferred from federal prison in western Maryland to a halfway house somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area and is scheduled for release Dec. 4.

Tragically, as this story was being prepared, the movie’s director, George Hickenlooper, was found dead in Denver, Colo., where he was slated to attend a film festival screening of “Casino Jack.”

Unlike the Alex Gibney documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” which was in theaters earlier this year and detailed Abramoff’s activities from his college days onward, this film focuses on the lobbyist’s dealings and double-dealings with Indian gaming clients; his attempted entry into SunCruz Casinos, an offshore gambling enterprise that led him into an involvement with mob-connected Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) and culminated in the murder of the casino’s former owner; his relationship with business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper); and his interactions with powerful Republican legislators and members of the Evangelical Christian movement.

Screenwriter Norman Snider found elements of darkly comic absurdity as well as high drama and a certain universality of theme in this saga.

“To me, it’s Shakespearean. It’s Richard III, you know; it’s hubris,” Snider said. “The thing that also interests me about Jack Abramoff was his towering ambition. He was going to start this casino empire around the world; it was just ambition that got out of hand. And, actually, the fall didn’t happen until they were really successful. He was the super lobbyist; he was making tens of millions of dollars, and it was success that destroyed him. That’s a universal theme as far as I’m concerned.”

Although Snider didn’t visit Abramoff in prison, both Spacey and Hickenlooper did, and Snider used a great deal of the information they obtained, as well as their impressions of Abramoff, in drafting the script. In addition, Snider said he got a lot of material about Abramoff and Scanlon from unexpected sources.

“At a certain point, it sort of got out on the grapevine that I was doing this script,” Snider said. “People came out of the woodwork, from all over the place, and started to talk to me about their characteristics and tell me war stories. There were several people who knew them both very well and told me various anecdotes about them, and I was able to get a sense of their personalities from that.”

What emerged was a portrait of Abramoff that some may find more sympathetic than might be expected. According to Snider, both the director and Spacey gave him the impression that Abramoff was very intelligent, charming and charismatic.

“I think, in these cases, people’s desire to be sternly moralistic and paint somebody as bad — and make no mistake, what Mr. Abramoff did was against the law — they tend to lose track of their more positive qualities. People of that caliber are very complex, and I tried to capture some of that complexity in my script,” Snider said.

Snider also dealt at great length with Abramoff’s Orthodox Judaism and his belief that its tenets lead inevitably to ultra-conservative political principles. In that vein, Abramoff tried to forge a common cause with fundamentalist Christians in the Republican Party.

“I find Jewish Republicanism hard to swallow,” said Snider, “because I feel that in that far-right kind of Southern strategy Republicanism there’s a strong core of anti-Semitism that remains, and in born-again, fundamentalist Christianity, there’s a belief in the end of the world, at which time the Jews are all going to be converted.”

As for what the screenwriter hopes audiences will take from his film, “I would like them to come away with a better understanding of how Washington works, of how politics works under the surface. I think lobbying, which is such a key part to the political process, is barely understood by anybody in the public. Hopefully, they will have that sense, and, other than that, my aims are purely aesthetic and artistic, so that people will understand the ferocious absurdity of a great deal of public life.”

From political machinations we move to a tale involving three murders, a love story and a wealthy Jewish dynasty.

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