George Hickenlooper's "Casino Jack" is worth seeing at the Charles for Kevin Spacey's coruscating portrait of the lobbyist as a hustler who believes in his own hustle. Alex Gibney's "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is a must-see on DVD because it places Abramoff in a vortex -- and a history -- of right-wing dirty tricks, hypocrisy and corruption.

"Casino Jack" offers a suprisingly intimate portrait of a scoundrel. Most of the time, Hickenlooper surrounds Spacey with nuanced performers like Kelly Preston, who is touching and persuasive as Abramoff's devoted, mortified wife, and John David Whelan, who moves from mischief to disbelief as a junor member of Team Abramoff. So it's both surprising and tragic that the director lets Jon Lovitz kill the film with a cartoonish depiction of a front man.

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There are no such letdowns In "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." Gibney pulls off the feat of using Abramoff's convictions for defrauding American Indian tribes and corrupting public officials as an opportunity to explain how free-market ideology went insane.

I spoke to Gibney before he showed his film at the Maryland Film Festival in May. (He returns here January 21 to be part of the MFF's annual fundraiser.) Even in conversation, he caught the momentum and humor of "Casino Jack and the United States of Money."

Q: How did you turn what should have been a depressing saga, and is still infuriating, into such an entertaining movie?

 A: I saw it as a spy thriller. A combination of "The Mouse That Roared" and "The Ipcress File." I thought, wow, that's a movie. It seemed like fun, but fun with a purpose. Coming out the other end was hard. I've been working on this, off and on for three years.

Q: What's going to boggle most audiences is the way you depict Abramoff at the center of this group of radical right-wingers who coalesced in college during the Reagan years.

A: Right. It was this core of radical Republicans who were determined to take over the government. They're like Lenin going to the Finland Station for the October Revolution! And in the actions that they organized, you see these guys dressed up in fatigues, doing these demos like 1960s street theater, except all from the Right. I thought, wow, this is really interesting. It didn't take over entirely, but it became this huge section of the film that I never expected, initially.

Q: What a group of characters, like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition….

A: It's like Hollywood casting. He could be the evil snake-oil salesman, or the guy who has this angelic, choir-boy face but in the dark of night is putting his stiletto between people's shoulder-blades. This is where journalism meets cinema and sometimes takes a different path. Partially what happened is that after we began to investigate and churn up materials for the film, we kept running across this material about the periods before the scandal broke. And it was fascinating. We found the cameraman who went to Angola for the Jamboree in Jamba [a 1985 conference of anti-Communist militants in Jamba, Angola]. Look at the elaborate spectacle they were able to mount there! They wanted it to be some spectacular right-wing Woodstock.

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