On Friday, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday merged her review of Iron Man 2 with a leftist documentary on convicted conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This strange mix led to Hornaday recklessly suggesting that Abramoff and former Rep. Tom DeLay may rehabilitate their careers when they should have been "killed off." Is that a metaphor? Not if you're holding a sign at a Tea Party rally. Here's how Hornaday concluded:
Abramoff is due to be released from prison later this year. With his trial for breaking Texas campaign finance laws still pending, DeLay went dancing on TV, presumably until he's either convicted or free to make his political comeback. [Former DeLay aide Michael] Scanlon has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced, evidently in order to testify against anyone who might still be indicted. As every decent comic book villain knows, if the good guys don't succeed in completely killing you off, you can be counted on to show up again in the sequel.
Hornaday made a series of strange Iron Man/Abramoff analogies before the kill-them-off ending:
Abramoff was eventually sent to prison for bilking Indian tribes out of millions of dollars -- the "gimme five" scheme he hatched in e-mail correspondence with Scanlon is given a hilarious dramatic reading in "Casino Jack" by Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd -- but most of what he did was business as usual in Washington. Whether he was organizing a "freedom fighter" summit with the ruthless Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, producing the testosterone-fueled anti-communist allegory "Red Scorpion," funneling money from sweatshops on the Northern Mariana Islands or cheating Native Americans, Abramoff was a true believer in the superiority of his cause. He no doubt believed, like Tony Stark, that his methods were sound because they were his methods.
Come to think of it, Abramoff could be an amalgamation of Stark and his arch-competitor in "Iron Man 2," the weaselly defense contractor Justin Hammer, played with scenery-chewing oiliness by Sam Rockwell. In that early Senate scene, Hammer takes the microphone and works the hearing room like a nightclub, inveighing that Stark has gone rogue and insisting that the Iron Man technology be shared for the public good.
It comes to pass that Hammer isn't coming from a place of public good as much as private greed. But when you put "Iron Man 2" and "Casino Jack" side by side, you see that Stark, Hammer and Abramoff share the same brand of moral arrogance that creates mayhem out of single-minded, by-any-means-necessary expediency. Of course, "Iron Man 2" dutifully obeys the strictures of its genre: Like all good comic book narratives, order is restored, with Stark's belief in his superiority intact, if a tad chipped with dim self-awareness.
But, like all classic comic books, "Iron Man 2" also allows for enough ambiguity to bring a diabolically delicious bad guy back for another go-round. And that, it turns out, is a lot like real life.
Although Abramoff and a few of his cohorts went to prison, an appalling number of politicians and staffers who partook of his largess wind up unaccountable in "Casino Jack," with Congress turning a blind eye to his multi-tentacled operation to influence its members.
"Casino Jack" -- made by leftist filmmaker Alex Gibney -- gets a more conventional left-wing review in the Weekend Section by the Post's Philip Kennicott:
Gibney's larger thesis -- that Abramoff wasn't exceptional, but rather a manifestation of an openly acknowledged alliance between moneyed interests and elected officials -- undermines his efforts to build outrage. This is the new normal, and there's DeLay all but saying (without a hint of shame) what should sound outrageous: that if public officials are bought openly and transparently, well, what's wrong with that? Isn't that capitalism?
....The tone of much of the film has that knowing, cynical, can't-shock-me-anymore flavor of liberal political satire on cable television....
But it's hard to assume Gibney's ironic tone and still expect to scandalize your audience into outrage. It's hard to make these dull, hollow, scheming men, who live in the perpetual testosterone-soaked locker room of adolescence, who seem to have no intellectual or spiritual depth, who take sophomoric pleasure in golf trips, sky boxes and private planes, into cinematic villains. They are pond scum -- they are Washington -- yet not quite interesting enough to be characters in a film.