Details: It's been over three years since Washington, D.C. super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff—the subject of Casino Jack and the United States of Money—went to prison for fraud. What still needs to change about the lobbying system?
Alex Gibney: We still have a system of legalized bribery in Washington, and Abramoff's story shows just how desperate politicians are. They'll take money from anyone. They're rapaciously dialing for dollars all day long, two, three days out of every work week. Why are we paying them to raise money?
Details: What was Abramoff's reaction to your first prison visit?
Alex Gibney: He was suspicious. I was frisked by one of his associates prior to meeting him to make sure I didn't have any recording devices.
Details: Why do you think he opened up to you, albeit off the record?
Alex Gibney: A lot of people he talked to in the past were either Jewish or movement conservatives or both. I told Jack, "Look, I'm obviously not a movement conservative, and I'm not Jewish. But you and I see eye-to-eye on one thing: Everyone portrays you as a bad apple, but I think you're evidence of a rotten barrel." He and I may disagree about what should be done to fix things, but he understood me.
Details: And what can be done to prevent another Jack Abramoff?
Alex Gibney: Everyone could opt in to a different system, one of campaign giving and spending limits. Limiting campaign contributions to $50 or $100 would democratize the system rather intensely.
Details: The Supreme Court doesn't seem to think that's constitutional.
Alex Gibney: I don't think that the Supreme Court will prevail on the idea that a corporation is the same as a citizen. Corporations don't go to war. That might be an interesting solution. Send Merck to war. Send Merck to Afghanistan. Draft Merck.
Details: You also made a documentary about Eliot Spitzer that was previewed as a work-in-progress at the Tribeca Film Festival. What did you learn about him?
Alex Gibney: Eliot Spitzer is a tennis player, and he's all about rushing the net. Attack, attack, attack, that's it. He only knows one way. His backhand isn't as strong as it should be, his forehand is good, and he has a reasonably good serve, and he has a great volley. So all he does is rush the net. That's Eliot Spitzer in a nutshell—the net rusher.
Details: Will his career make a comeback?
Alex Gibney: What is it F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that there are no second acts in American life? That's the stupidest thing he ever said. America is all about second acts. Spitzer has always been aggressive toward corruption in the economic sphere, like the really pernicious stuff Goldman Sachs has been accused of. Who else besides Spitzer is willing to stand up to that stuff and say no?
Details: Corruption clearly pisses you off.
Alex Gibney: It just gets my goat. The idea that people present themselves as grand viziers when they're deeply corrupt, it just makes me angry. But I am almost always more interested in telling the story of the perps than the victims.
Details: What makes a good documentary?
Alex Gibney: A good story well told. One of the great things about the last ten years in documentaries in this country—and this had been true in Europe before that—is that you hear the voice of the author more. That's a good thing.
Details: Some would argue that documentarians like Michael Moore have taken that idea to the extreme.
Alex Gibney: Yeah, but that's his personality. And if you don't like it, don't go see his movies.
Details: Well, is it your job as a documentarian to tell a story or to make a point?
Alex Gibney: The point has to come out of the story. You can come out of Casino Jack thinking about the rich complexity of the story and you can laugh and cry and get angry, but at the end there is one simple point: Take the money out of the system.
Watch the Trailer:
Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens in theaters May 7.