As I write this, in late 2010, lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a stale topic. About
the only thing I remembered about him before watching this movie is that he
wore a scary gangster-style fedora, and that there was a time when anyone who
had ever been in contact with Abramoff had done his or her best to eradicate
all traces of the relationship, however insignificant it might have been.
Photos were burned, hard drives were re-formatted, e-mails were deleted, and
phone messages were erased. When the Abramoff news started to break, everybody
touched by the scandal seemed to realize that Jack had gone over the top with
sleaze, even by the standards of a sleazy profession, and that it had been a
mistake to associate with him, especially given the feeding frenzy then
current in the media.
Those were simply my preconceived impressions and perceptions, but in
researching the background behind this film, I've discovered that my
simplistic top-line take on it was not too far from the truth. Jack Abramoff
provided many people with cash and privileges, and almost all of them knew
that the checks came with strings attached, even when there was nothing
explicitly illegal about the transaction, because the boldest lobbyists always
operate on the grey fringes of legality, out beyond the safe areas where
society's laws and morals are in complete confluence. Whenever a policymaker
accepted a campaign contribution from an Abramoff client, that lawmaker knew
that he had been compromised in some way, even if he did not quite understand
what might eventually be expected of him in return. That's how our lobbying
system works in America. It is the watered-down American equivalent of the
institutionalized corruption that plagues Eastern Europe, Latin America, and
elsewhere. It's an oblique form of bribery, in that there is generally no
stated tit-for-tat, but a set of unspoken assumptions and expectations. It can
also be far more pernicious than outright bribery, because bribes, by their
nature, come with a certain accountability. The South American lawmaker who
fails to deliver on the explicit stipulations attached to a generous gift from
the drug cartel will probably find himself paying the price for his duplicity,
one way or another. Perhaps his political opponents will have enough power to
jail him or remove him from office. He better hope they get to him before the
drug lords do.
The American system of bribery comes without accountability, assuming that the
players are sufficiently cautious. An Indian tribe pays a lobbyist for
representation. The lobbyist makes some campaign contributions on the tribe's
behalf, delivered with an emotional speech about how the tribe's children
could get health care and education if only some nice, clean, honest casinos
could be legally operated on Indian land. The tribe gets casinos approved.
Everybody is happy, nobody has broken any laws, and nobody owes any taxes. An
outright bribe would not be tax-deductible, of course, but paying "legal fees"
to the lobbyist's law firm is a legitimate business expense for the tribe,
which is a corporation. The lack of accountability comes from the fact that
the lawmaker doesn't have to vote for the casinos, and his failure to do so
will result in no violence or public accusations. But, of course, he won't be
getting any more such opportunities. So (almost) everyone learns to play ball,
because nobody wants to kill a goose that lays golden eggs.
The whole process is sleazy. It corrupts individuals with irresistible
temptations, and it undermines a system of government that should
theoretically be the best in the world. You probably consider the whole
business immoral as well, depending on your own concept of morality.
It may be unethical, but it's legal, provided that one does not stray from
that exact path.
Jack Abramoff could have continued to do it that way for the rest of his life,
the same way all the other lobbyists do it, and he would have lived an
extremely comfortable life without ever facing any jail time or public
humiliation. He chose a different route. He wanted to wield true power with
truly big money, so he started to play the game in ways that crossed the line.
- He directed some of his clients' money to people who kicked a percentage
back to him.
- When his clients looked for investors, he tried to figure out how he
could get a piece of the pie for himself, sometimes a very big piece.
- He and certain public officials got a bit too public when Abramoff
courted their influence, as highlighted by an infamous golfing excursion to
This movie tells a few stories about how Abramoff and some of his associates
went beyond the limits. The two areas of greatest focus are the kickbacks
Abramoff hauled in from his bilking of the Native-American tribes, and his
ill-advised attempt to acquire the SunCruz floating casinos
If you go into this film expecting some kind of heavy-handed anti-Abramoff
hatchet job, you'll be very surprised. Although the film does not whitewash
Abramoff, it never fails to show that there was always somebody just as bad,
or worse, in the room. Abramoff is shown being horrified by the lengths his
business partners would go to make something work in their favor. He is shown
as the more responsible and moral partner in his dealings with Michael
Scanlon, who helped him bilk the Indians. He is also shown as the more
sensible and moral partner in his dealings with Adam Kidan, his associate in
the attempted SunCruz acquisition. Abramoff is also shown as a good family
man, a spiritual man who acknowledges his failings, and a man who tried to do
good things with his money, even if he always seemed to spoil his good
intentions with a massive ego and a faulty moral compass. Kevin Spacey doesn't
make Abramoff likeable, but he does make him completely human. The Abramoff of
this film is a lot like most of us, except that he plays for much higher
The film is also a lot more amusing than you would probably expect. The film's
creators have decided to deal with co-conspirators Michael Scanlon and Adam
Kidan, as well as lawmakers Tom Delay and Bob Ney, by ridiculing them as
buffoons. Kidan, for example, is played by Jon Lovitz, and
the character is milked for more laughs than you'd expect in a film about the
deepest levels of corruption of the American political system. Bagman is not
a heavy-handed liberal sermon film, or a film with a great deal of depth. The
tone is generally light. It is best characterized as a sweeping entertainment
picture about a gang that couldn't shoot straight.
Is it factually accurate? Kinda. You should not assume that this movie is a
documentary or a historical recreation. The opening credits say that it is
"based on real events." If you speak fluent studio, you know that phrase means
the authors felt free to embellish the truth. The script does not try to stay factual down to the last detail,
and the conversations are mostly imagined by the authors, based upon the known
facts and the personalities of the characters. On the other hand, I caught up on all the Abramoff cases before
writing this article, and it seems to me that the film portrays all
the situations reasonably. Where the truth has been embellished, it has not
been done to push a point of view, but to tell a good story.