“There's no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties,” Jimmy Stewart stumped from the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
, but remember: That was 1939 – and Capra
’s 1939, to put a finer point on it. Seventy-odd years later, one wonders if there’s a place out there for anything but
graft, greed, lies, and/or compromise with human liberties in our nation’s capital; certainly two hours with this takedown of überlobbyist Jack Abramoff won’t reassure anyone of the nobleness of spirit of D.C.’s major players. Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
) is a showman and a bit of a sensationalist, a 21st century muckraker laying waste to society’s rotten apples, who all too commonly also happen to be the ruling class. And his latest target, Abramoff, certainly ran the show, ascending from the ranks of the College Republican National Committee to become a top K Street lobbyist who went on golfing trips with then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, orchestrated a White House meet and greet for the Malaysian prime minister (for a pretty profit), and bled Native American communities dry by first working in concert with the Christian right (including longtime pal Ralph Reed) to close Indian casinos, then reaping millions as a lobbyist for various tribes desperate to get their casinos reopened. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg – there were also sweatshops, Russian spies, and Dolph Lundgren on his rap sheet. Gibney, an Oscar winner for his 2007 film Taxi to the Dark Side
, landed some very big interviews – both the disgraced DeLay and convicted Congressman Bob Ney sat for the camera – but he never nabbed Abramoff; despite being the center of an exhaustively researched film, the subject still feels essentially unknowable, and Gibney robs us of any triumphant feeling by rushing through Abramoff’s eventual downfall, shifting focus instead to Wall Street’s pushes for deregulation – the point being, of course, that the entire system is corrupt (hence the second part of the title). Gibney ballasts this deeply dispiriting exposé with film clips (Mr. Smith
gets heavy play) and sparky music choices, but even when it demonstrates a sense of humor, there’s an assaultive feel to the film, as when an interview is overlaid with anthem “Children of the Revolution,” which is itself overlaid with the Indiana Jones
theme song: Tonally, it all makes sense, but there’s such a thing as overmuchness. Gibney laudably launches a withering attack here on the pay-to-play relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. But this viewer felt withered, too, by the end of his battering ram of a movie.