Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / Magnolia Pictures
Alex Gibney
“There’s a quote from the physicist Richard Feynmen: ‘It’s important to have an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.’”
True Graft
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The imaginative power of fiction is transcendent, but boy, the truth is a jaw-dropper.

Case in point, Oscar-winning writer-director Alex Gibney’s new documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. This recounting of the swindles of right-wing superlobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff brims with the bizarre, the infuriating, and the impossibly ridiculous – stuff that, if you wrote it in a script, would either get you fired or put on regular rotation for big studio punch-ups.

In 1985, for example, Abramoff organized a now infamous “Jungle Jamboree” in Jamba, Angola, where confused Republican politicos were flown in to rub shoulders with gun-toting “freedom fighters” from the Contras to the Mujahideen. They bonded in white-knuckled awkwardness over their mutual hatred of commies. Abramoff had managed to convince drugstore magnate and conservative benefactor Lewis Lehrman, a stodgy fellow in normal company, to fund the festivities, which were hosted by murderous anti-Marxist fighter and key b-plot Cold War player, Jonas Savimbi.

Gibney, whose previous documentaries include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the 2008 Academy Award-winner Taxi to the Dark Side, spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Casino Jack and his feelings about that classic stand-off – facts vs. fiction.

For starters, give me an idea of how much time you put in on research for this?

It was extensive, on and off for three years.

Mostly on?

Yeah, mostly on. There was a lot of research to do. It was a combination of things; literally digging down with people who were involved in these events to find out things you didn’t know before, that kind of traditional journalistic work. Then there was a tremendous amount of archival research, papers, articles, and so forth.


Photo: © 2010 Magnolia Pictures
Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

We found this guy in London who had 10 hours of footage of Abramoff’s Jungle Jamboree with so-called freedom fighters – this bizarre kind of Republican Woodstock. That was just incredible.

He was the middleman between some very unsavory characters and some relatively normal ones. There’s a great scene in that footage where Lewis Lehrman, this kind of Waspy guy, presents Savimbi with a bowl from George Washington’s house which Savimbi waves around rather recklessly, and all his men throw their guns in the air. It’s incredible.

Just on subject matter, Jack Abramoff represents the stereotype of corrupting force in Washington. What beyond that makes this a singular, must-tell story for you?

Because the story is just so wild. I mean, it goes from shooting machine guns in Africa to mob hits in Miami to Indian casinos to some lifeguard in Maryland. It’s like a [John] le Carré novel. This is the kind of stuff that writers sit down at their desks and try to come up with.

And to that point, have you ever fancied writing a fictional piece? Why or why not?

Yes. I’m probably going to start working on one soon. I’ve done it before, but with my documentary work as well as my work in fiction, it’s very important that it play like a movie. I don’t draw a line between fiction and documentary in terms of wanting the piece to be entertaining.

Having worked in documentaries, what do you see as the drawbacks of fictionalized work?

Sometimes you run across things that are so wild [in documentaries]. An example would be the dialogue of the Enron traders as they bring down the California grid. If you wrote that, it would be perceived as unbelievable, totally over the top. The fact that it actually happened makes it incredibly compelling.

What do you see as some of the limitations to the reality, documentary realm?

You’re limited by the images you can find, which is huge. In fiction, your imagery is limitless. And, often in documentaries, you have to imagine the internal life of characters. With fictional work you’re able to dig deeper and explore that internal life.

On a practical level, with the documentaries, what’s your method for organizing all the information you gather?

I usually start at the beginning with a pretty good idea of the story structure, but at the same time, I remain ready to deviate from that. Fiction is the same. Sometimes a character just pops up and demands more attention. The e-mails in the Abramoff story [and] the Enron calls kind of skewed the narratives, and I had to make room for them.

So mainly, knowing where you’re going fundamentally helps you organize the information. There are all kinds of tidbits and tangents, but when you’re in the editing room, it’s like there’s a gremlin that says, “Pay attention to the story!” If you don’t listen to those voices, you can loose track.

That has to be overwhelming.

Thus the necessity for having a path figured out at the beginning. There’s a quote from the physicist Richard Feynmen [who worked on the Manhattan Project and discovered the O-rings were at fault in the Challenger disaster]: “It’s important to have an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.” If you’re not careful, you become a prisoner of the facts rather than a master of them.

I know your dad was a journalist and nobody likes bad guys, but what has drawn you to this cause of illuminating corruption as a writer and filmmaker?

It makes my blood boil. But at the same time, I’m fascinated by the psychology of the perps here, the Abramoffs. It’s only by really looking at their psychology that you begin to understand how to stop this stuff. It’s a way of looking honestly at human nature, because we’re all like that. Rather than saying there are certain good people and certain bad people, understanding that it’s in us all is the only way to figure out what to do about it.