This American Life
Matt Connolly on Casino Jack and the United States of Money and The Big Short
“Why would you want to make a documentary? No one watches documentaries. You should make an action film!” —Jack Abramoff, in an e-mail conversation with director Alex Gibney, quoted in Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Popular culture has frequently been seen as the enemy of collective engagement with the “serious” issues of the moment. Bread and circuses, opiate of the masses, the culture of distraction: whatever the metaphor or theoretical framework, mass entertainment becomes figured as an eye-catching distraction that must be assiduously ignored, if not an actively pernicious system designed to keep the populace dulled and docile in the face of malfeasance in government, business, medicine, law, etc. Within the realm of contemporary film, though, documentaries often get a pass. They are the thinking person’s preferred type of viewing, offering topicality and edification in contradistinction to the socially disconnected and/or politically dubious fantasies churned out by the major studios. To define oneself as a regular viewer of documentaries not only implies engagement with current events. It also connotes a certain kind of relationship to the cinematic medium—one that figures film primarily as an effective conveyor of socially relevant information, more resonant with the argumentation and density of detail found in long-form journalism than mainstream fictional features.
Of course, the line between the forms of documentary filmmaking and popular Hollywood cinema has always been blurry, perhaps never more so since feature-length documentaries have become more economically viable. They promise viewers fresh knowledge and analytical insights into the wider world while wedding the transmission of said information to cinema’s capacities for visual plentitude, emotional identification, and (seemingly) direct connection to physical reality via the camera. In the current moment, influential documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have liberally lifted from the stylings of big-budget fiction filmmakers, television series, and music videos for their own politically charged nonfiction titles. Such a move can be seen as speaking through the aesthetic language of the masses for a noble good—namely, the delivery of an issue-focused message through means that are pleasurable and familiar. That being said, foregrounding documentary’s proximity to the very popular culture models that are seen as counterproductive distractions can lead to accusations of oversimplification, glossiness, and lack of rigor. Like those who loudly insist on cinematic adaptations never being as good as their literary forebears, there will always be claims that a biography or textbook or New Yorker article will provide more depth and detail than a nonfiction film.
Does drawing from similar aesthetic options as mainstream fiction film dilute documentary’s mission for clarifying one’s experience of the world or offer alternate possibilities for viewer edification? If popular visual style can seep into documentaries, can fictional films successfully lift documentary-inflected techniques to address social and political questions normally presumed beyond the limits of big-budget entertainment? In short, how does one harness the energy, the accessibility, even the insights of popular culture without diluting investigative precision, complexity, and impact?
Separated by the doc/fiction divide as well as five years between their release dates, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) and The Big Short (2015) confront these questions by addressing two interconnected issues. First, they both attempt to explain systems of corruption that are as byzantine in their logistical complexity as they are blood-boiling in their ethical turpitude and malignant societal impact. For Casino Jack, documentarian Alex Gibney untangles the knot of corporate shell games, political glad-handing, and financial wheeling and dealing that allowed Washington, D.C. super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to unduly influence high-ranking members of Congress throughout the 1990s and 2000s before being convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. The Big Short, meanwhile, uses Michael Lewis’s book of the same name as a jumping-off point to tell a fictionalized account of the Wall Street traders and hedge-fund managers who discovered the massive (and massively complicated) layers of fraud that undergird the American housing market and the attendant financial instruments surrounding it. As these structures began to implode and the economy moved toward disaster in 2007 and 2008, they used this information against the housing market, ultimately reaping millions in profit. Clearly, both Gibney and Big Short director Adam McKay see their films as helping to elucidate the public on issues that are fundamental to their economic and political fortunes, yet whose mind-boggling complexity leads many to throw up their hands in bafflement.
This leads to the second issue: the role of popular culture in how the public relates to such widespread and head-scratching impropriety. For both Casino Jack and The Big Short, mainstream entertainment is the symptom and the solution, albeit in differing ways. Gibney searches for the roots of Abramoff’s avarice on several fronts, but he returns frequently to the role of media as a source of the super-lobbyist’s Manichean worldview. This, in turn, leads Gibney to utilize a range of popular film clips and music snippets to tell Abramoff’s story—easily digestible cues that seek to simultaneously denounce Abramoff and make his schemes comprehensible to the viewer. The Big Short holds an even more jaundiced view of pop culture, sneering at its distractive effects and sighing at the public that allows itself to be led astray while major financial institutions chip away at the economic foundations of the country. More forcefully than Casino Jack (and certainly with greater didacticism than the majority of contemporary Hollywood cinema), it flips media-saturated celebrity culture on its head and uses it to convey public information in a tone by turns snarky, despairing, and agitated. Both of these gambits encounter various aesthetic dead-ends and ideological paradoxes, but their similar attempts to at once critique and employ popular culture in the name of public enlightenment deserves closer scrutiny.
Casino Jack offers some of its most pungent commentary through the connections it makes between Abramoff’s hubris and the various inspirations he took from mainstream entertainment. Abramoff’s us-versus-them political education within the Reagan-era College Republicans gets tied to the group’s love of Patton (1970), and specifically the titular general’s film-opening address to his troops exhorting them to wipe out the enemy. (Young Republicans like Abramoff would switch out “Nazis” for “Democrats” as the foe to be vanquished.) His anti-communism and simplistic valorization of anti-Soviet freedom fighters similarly becomes both explicitly and implicitly linked to the spy-versus-spy fantasies espoused in popular culture. Abramoff racked up high debts for the College Republicans by purchasing hundreds of copies of The Spike, a 1980 spy thriller that imagined a secret Soviet cabal controlling Washington, D.C. When journalist Thomas Frank points out that many conservatives believed such mass infiltration had, in fact, already occurred within the government by the late 1970s, the film cuts to a clip from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), John Frankenheimer’s classic take on communist infiltration—a cheeky juxtaposition that nevertheless underscores the broader legacy of anti-communist paranoia that fed a generation of Reagan conservatives. Abramoff himself ended up contributing to this very cinematic legacy when he produced Red Scorpion (1988), a pulpy action picture that followed the exploits of a Soviet operative turned anti-communist freedom fighter in an unnamed African country (played by 80s B-action staple, Dolph Lundgren). Gibney uses the film as an almost-too perfect manifestation of Abramoff’s shamelessness and movie-shaped, black-and-white worldview.
Gibney’s attempts to harness the verve and accessibility of mainstream entertainment to guide the viewer through Abramoff’s tangled web of corruption prove somewhat more complicated in their overall effect. Like many documentarians in the post–Michael Moore era of nonfiction, Gibney relies heavily upon pre-existing songs to link scenes, create ironic juxtapositions, and maintain a tone that oscillates between seen-it-all sarcasm and earnest emotional engagement. Some of these moments are harmless enough in their easy alignments of song lyrics to what is occurring visually: the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress set to the propulsive strains of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”; Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” accompanying the cascade of Washington Post stories that led to criminal charges against Abramoff (“Oh sinnerman / Where you gonna run to?”). Others, though, comment upon the action in thudding, simplistic ways. Footage of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay commenting on how his previous work as an exterminator prepared him for his anti-regulation crusade in Congress, for instance, cuts to black-and-white images of pest-control workers. As a rodent scurries along in one shot, we hear the lyrics “I think I smell a rat in my house!” from Buddy Guy’s “I Smell a Rat.” While one can perhaps take such moments as so-obvious-they’re-clever winks to the viewer, more often they simply feel like pandering to keep audiences from losing focus as the film wades further into Abramoff’s knotty financial schemes.
There is an internal tension throughout Casino Jack between demystifying Washington corruption for the viewer and maintaining an air of cloak-and-dagger intrigue. This tension is apparent from the film’s opening scene. Following the admonition from Abramoff to Gibney (quoted above) about the relative merits of documentary investigation versus action-flick excitement, Casino Jack begins with a series of images following a car cruising through city streets at night. Bob Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” echoes over these shots, then cuts off abruptly when another vehicle suddenly pulls up and the driver assassinates our unseen motorist point blank. This jarring tableau is then retroactively framed as a reenactment of the slaying of Gus Boulis, a Florida businessman with whom Abramoff had increasingly strained relations. Following so closely after Abramoff’s insistence on goosing his narrative with action-movie tropes, the opening can be read as Gibney’s self-conscious attempt to place the viewer within the sort of movie-made paranoia and larger-than-life scandals that defined Abramoff’s career. On the other hand, it acts as its own kind of con on the viewer. While an important moment within Abramoff’s downfall, the Boulis murder takes up a relatively brief amount of time in Casino Jack. Foregrounding it within the film allows Gibney to have his cake and eat it too: tweak the sort of cinematic clichés that shaped Abramoff’s worldview while employing them to draw audiences into a film in which the major crimes are far more complex and far less juicy than a gangland hit.
Casino Jack finds its most productively ambivalent moments when it doesn’t force pre-existing footage to stand in for a single concept or emotion, but allows a given film clip’s meaning to wobble a bit when placed with its new context. Gibney bookends the film with clips from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), with Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith initially voicing the sort of full-throated American idealism that seems the very opposite of Abramoff’s glad-handing and payoffs. This more straightforward use of the film, however, gains nuance as Gibney cuts to a series of shots of Smith exploring the Lincoln Memorial, eyes aglow with awe. Over these images, the documentary’s narrator muses whether the story of Abramoff is an isolated phenomenon of personal greed or a particularly vicious symptom of an illness that has long infected the body politic as a whole. The juxtaposition ambiguously places Smith somewhere between an ideal to strive for and a relic from another era—as well as reminds the attentive viewer of the complicated perspectives on the American political system baked into Capra’s original. (Claude Rains’s corrupt senator seems like a prime target for Abramoff.) Casino Jack’s use of footage from the 1984 film The Natural in its final moments proves even more uncertain. Robert Redford’s slugger slams the baseball over the field and into the stadium lights, causing them to burst and shower the field with picturesque sparks, all to the strains of Randy Newman’s triumphant score. Over this, author and journalist Robert G. Kaiser describes the great pastime in the United States as not baseball but making money. He goes on to note how the deeply held American belief that anyone can suddenly get rich not only drives individuals like Abramoff to such greed-fueled extremes but also makes the populace in general leery of reining in the wealthy whom they hope one day to join. Such juxtaposition reconfigures Redford’s triumphant ballplayer as the unattainable ideal and the cheering crowds the deluded masses that hope against hope to achieve such heights. It’s not a fully worked-through idea, yet it points to something darkly pessimistic within a seemingly sunny piece of pop culture, ending the film on an unsettled and unsettling note.
If Casino Jack gestures toward the need for the American public to get over its collective get-rich-quick delusions, The Big Short chastises us in far more direct terms for allowing popular culture to act as a mass diversion from the financial crimes perpetuated throughout the last twenty years. Certainly, it saves its most piercing critiques for the banks, loan companies, and other tentacles of the financial services industry, while offering some admittedly half-hearted attempts to humanize the eventual victims of the crisis. As the quote that opened this essay implies, however, the film takes a jaundiced view of how easily the American populace can turn its attention away from systemic injustices for the fleeting flash and sparkle of entertainment and celebrity.
McKay incorporates images and clips from popular culture to underscore this point. As trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who also serves as the film’s fourth-wall-breaking narrator, notes how “America barely noticed” as banking became the country’s top industry, a lightning-paced montage liberally sprinkles in stills from The Blues Brothers, South Park, and Borat amongst the blur of current events that obscured the financial sector’s dominance in the latter third of the twentieth century. Later, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) travels to the biggest banks in New York to bet against prominent mortgage-backed securities, encountering boardroom after boardroom of executives who happily accept a proposal that will seemingly net them millions in easy profit. McKay scores Burry’s deal-making to “Money Maker”—Ludacris’s paean to the imbrication of sex and commerce—intercutting images of upper management gleefully celebrating a quick payday with snippets from the song’s libidinous music video and assorted pop culture and media ephemera, including “The Landlord,” McKay’s own 2007 viral video featuring his two-year-old daughter demanding cash from a cowering Will Ferrell; Britney Spears plugging Crossroads (2002); and controversial CNBC financial guru Jim Cramer. The montage suggests an intoxicating yet insidious symbiosis between the two, with popular culture simultaneously giving form to and providing a diversion from the orgy of capitalist excess taking place in the highest echelons of financial power.
One might very well argue, of course, that The Big Short doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on in its critique of popular culture’s collusion with corporate might. Distributed by Viacom subsidiary Paramount Pictures, the film stars such high-profile names as Bale, Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt, and was directed by a man previously known for helming Will Ferrell vehicles. Who is Adam McKay to lecture the masses on the pernicious nature of mass entertainment? The Big Short attempts to distinguish itself from most commercial cinema by playfully adopting some Brechtian distancing devices—characters casually addressing the camera; voiceovers that call into question the veracity of what we’re seeing—as well as techniques from documentary cinema, including explanatory passages narrated by Gosling’s cynical trader and even spelling out definitions of abstruse financial terminology via on-screen text. A narrative film, it nevertheless makes clear its interest in a certain kind of populist didacticism, using whatever formal tools are necessary to get the viewing public to understand the tangled roots of the Great Recession.
Perhaps the film’s most striking and successful gambit comes when it self-consciously harnesses the appeals of celebrity and popular media to achieve these ends. When The Big Short comes to a particularly important and esoteric term, it stops its own narrative cold and cuts to a real-life celebrity outside the narrative who explains it in easy-to-digest language and simple metaphors. So, chef Anthony Bourdain describes a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) by comparing it to a shady seafood stew. Selena Gomez (accompanied by behavioral economist Richard Thaler) illustrates the disastrous ripple effects of synthetic CDOs via a series of bets surrounding a single hand of blackjack. Most memorably, Margot Robbie appears in a luxurious bubble bath and sips a flute of champagne as she elucidates the structural failures of mortgage-backed securities. Her sequence establishes the mixture of spiky sarcasm and earnestness seen throughout all of these diegesis-breaking interludes. On the one hand, these cutaways aggressively foreground the larger exasperation with popular culture’s hegemony over the attention of the masses: “Fine,” the film seems to sneer, “here is a hot blonde covered with bubbles, because that’s the only way you’ll pay attention.” On the other hand, blatantly employing Robbie’s star power, physical beauty, and charisma models a use for mainstream entertainment and celebrity culture that can actually effect some change. Against the twin forces of pop culture distraction and the intentionally confounding terminology of the financial sector, Robbie’s monologue lays out the stakes and consequences of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in succinct and effective terms. (I’ll be damned if it didn’t stick with me in ways that many an article on the financial crisis has failed to.) This tension allows the viewer to absorb the information while still acknowledging the exaggerated means by which it seemingly has to be conveyed. “Got it? Good,” Robbie says with a smile after finishing her pitch. She takes an umpteenth swig of champagne as the camera lingers, locks eyes once again with the viewer, and concludes, “ Now fuck off.”
The Big Short’s willingness to foreground the dissemination of facts and figures intriguingly blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary. As a result, attempts to pivot back to conventions of character psychology and nuanced narrative conflict end up falling a little flat. McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph set up much of The Big Short as an unveiling of ever-growing avarice and depravity. Burry (Christian Bale), hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, and other eccentric and/or small-time players separately seek to do their homework to determine whether increasingly faulty financial instruments propped up the housing market in the 2000s.Each conversation with a different complicit player—money managers, brokers, ratings agency employees, FCC regulators—becomes a variation on the same theme of disgust, bewilderment, and an increasing belief on the part of Burry, Baum, and others that the system is corrupt and should be made to pay for its sins. Such a structure sets up the characters less as three-dimensional fictive creations than appealing stand-ins. This inevitably makes the attempts to shade in their pasts and explain their motives feel pat and predigested—Burry’s social awkwardness stemming partially from a glass eye; Baum’s unprocessed guilt over the suicide of his brother—but that winds up mattering less than you would think. These figures serve an arguably more effective role as they help to translate the financial sector’s complexities and embody the viewer’s own feelings of confusion and anger at the massive swindles perpetuated upon us.
If the attempts in both Casino Jack and The Big Short to navigate the interstices between public enlightenment and mass entertaiment prove mixed, they also point to the inevitable imbrication between the two—one that has only become increasingly difficult to separate with each passing year. It’s now the stuff of hot-take banality to note that the success of a certain presumptive presidential nominee signals the ultimate convergence of government, media, and culture. Whether by investigating popular media’s influence upon the shape of public discourse and policy or mixing fictional and documentary forms to illuminate their inner contours and overlaps, documentary and narrative filmmakers need to be willing to blur the boundaries between the two in order to more critically analyze our contemporary moment. Lest we get too wrapped up in the lure of the present, however, it’s also worth remembering that the merging of politics and pop began long before the ascendance of the Donald. Casino Jack concludes with the usual coda of on-screen text informing viewers of the fate of the film’s respective players, culminating in an update on Tom DeLay. Four years after being indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate election law as part of the larger Abramoff scandals and resigning as House Majority Leader, DeLay hit the TV circuit, appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as an “expert” lifeline and competing on Dancing with the Stars. The film ends with footage from DeLay’s first week on Dancing. Gussied up in a dark vest with leopard-print fringe, he spins and shimmies with partner Cheryl Burke, sliding across the dance floor on his knees as he lip-syncs to “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. Truly, you can’t make this stuff up.