Alarmist Documentaries About Money, Power and the Evaporation of Privacy. Fun!

by Jake Meaney

28 April 2010

In a true sign of the times, alarmist films about our precarious times screen at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Meaney checks out Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Erasing David.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Director: Alex Gibney

US theatrical: 7 May 2010

Erasing David

Director: David Bond

(Green Lions)

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Screened Friday 23 April

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, director Alex Gibney’s follow up to his superb Enron documentary, follows a similar trail of money, power, and corruption through a winding trail of political malfeasance and irresponsibility. The scope is larger—the Jack Abramoff scandal that coursed through the halls of Congress and washed up to the very lip of the Oval Office—but the focus isn’t as tight, and though always interesting, the film loses some of its punch in an overwhelming barrage of details and stories that obfuscate, rather than illuminate, the central wrong rotting away at the center.

Jack Abramoff was a lobbyist’s lobbyist, an influence peddler of the highest caliber, who seemed to possess a preternatural ability to grease the skids and turn the tiller of power in Congress.  The film posits him as the center around which a great wheel of money and corrupt influence revolved, through the ‘80s and ‘90s, before crashing down in the early 2000s in an Indian casino scandal that seemed, for a brief moment, like it would topple the Bush White House.
But though Abramoff is the ostensible subject and locus, he’s really a cipher. He is not interviewed in the film, and we learn very little, if anything, about his personal life or history or how he amassed his power. We see his involvement everywhere—funneling money for his radical Republican cohorts; pulling levers to maintain a mini-empire of slave labor on the South Pacific island of Saipan; playing tribes against the other in Indian casino dispute; running roughshod over the Constitution—but see him nowhere. The paper trail always seems to lead back to him, but he is ever elusive, flitting on the edge like a ghost. 

In fact, for much of its run time, it feels more like it’s about Tom DeLay (which, as producer Alison Elwood admitted in the Q&A following the screening, is what the film initially started out as) than Abramoff. Part of this is inevitable, since Abramoff and Delay were so intertwined. But it also indicates a lack of assurance on Gibney’s part of what he wants the film to be and do. At times it really feels like there are two, or maybe three, separate films going on here, all jammed and linked together by common characters, but all dealing with stories that probably deserve their own separate treatments.

Ultimately, Casino Jack is all just too much, an information overload that loses sight of the forest for the trees. It is both ultraspecific and maddeningly vague, and does nothing to streamline a very complex and dense story into something clear and understandable to someone who isn’t a political junkie (as Gibney did so masterfully with Enron). It’s choppy and seems hastily thrown together, trusting that the gravity of the issues brought up will get the audience through. Though it’s easy enough to suss out the moral of the film—unrestrained money in politics, bad; campaign finance reform, good—by the time it got there I’d long since given up the situation as hopeless and beyond repair.


Erasing David
Screened Saturday 24 April

A paranoiac’s wet dream/worst nightmare, Erasing David is about one man’s doomed efforts to go off the information grid and disappear without a trace.  The excellent named David Bond (both the subject of the film, and the director) is spurred on his Quixotic quest by a form letter he received from UK’s Child Benefit Office saying that his daughter’s personal information had been lost in a database breach. Wondering just how much the government and corporations know about him and his family without their knowledge, Bond begins an experiment to see just how much his own personal privacy has been breached in a digital world so thoroughly saturated by surveillance and databases.

He hires a team of private investigators to track him down, gives himself a bit of a head start, and then sets off from his London apartment in attempt to elude the P.I.’s, while still maintaining some sort of normal contact with the rest of the world (i.e., he’s not going to just go hole up in Siberia for a month). His goal is to make it 30 days without being caught—he barely manages 18.

Most of the film is presented as a sort of reality show/scavenger hunt, with Bond hatching schemes to erase his trail, and the P.I.’s coming up with increasingly cleverer plans to trap him. As the days go by, Bond becomes increasingly more frantic, unhinged and paranoid, trying to find hideouts that the P.I.’s couldn’t know about, always spinning the wheels around in his head of just what “they” (the P.I.’s and the sort of general they all paranoiacs believe in) could know and anticipate. He’s forever spying the horizon with binoculars, peering out from behind curtains, and, in one remarkable scene, going to ground in a weird underground cabin/hut somewhere in a field in Wales.

In the other part of the film, Bond delves into the particulars of the data trail we all leave in our wake, and the impossibility of every truly knowing what “they” know about us, and where it is all stored. None of this should be news to anyone who, oh, I don’t know, has a birth certificate, or a pulse, but it’s still remarkable to see how readily and easily compromised all our personal information is, and how much of it there is, and how many insecure places it is stored, and how easy one’s life is wrecked if this information falls into the wrong hands, or accidentally ends up in the wrong place.

Though it could have been dour and alarmist, Erasing David actually keeps a droll, breezy tone throughout. Bond has a wry sense of resigned humor about the whole thing - he realizes that not only is his little jailbreak doomed from the start, but that we are all doomed to lives of persistent lack of privacy in a world that has become increasingly transparent. Minimization of participation can stave off some of this—you don’t have to have Facebook, Twitter, or a blog updating your every move and status to friends and strangers—but in the end it doesn’t matter—“they” will get us.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money


Erasing David


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