Thumbs Up For 2 Sundance Documentaries

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While Sundance buyers try to hook Catfish, two other docus that came with distributors unveil today and tomorrow, and I found them great viewing. Alex Gibney has a 6 PM premiere today for the competition entry Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, about disgraced Washington DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tomorrow, PR mogul-turned-filmmaker Dan Klores unveils Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, which like Catfish is part of the Documentary Spotlight program.

Gibney — the Oscar-winning director of Taxi To The Darkside and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room –gave me an early peek at his docu, which makes a compelling case for campaign finance reform. The film, which will be released by Magnolia Pictures in April, bares outrageous abuses and moral corrosion that transformed Abramoff from GOP true believer to fatcat lobbyist who got rich protecting the interests of Asian slave labor-sweat shop owners, murderous third world “freedom fighters,” Russian gangsters, Indian casino operators, and drug companies. Through Abramoff, pols fed at the money trough until they, too, were brought down by the ensuing scandal.

Abramoff comes across as a colorful but deluded movie-loving rogue who patterned himself as a Jason Bourne-type character but ended up cast as a villain who is serving four years for corruption and fraud. “Jack started with ideals, but at the end of the day, money becomes the moral universe for all these guys,” Gibney told me. “Ultimately, you have to take the money out of the political election system, or we’re done as a democracy.”

The only thing missing from Gibney’s superb dissection is an interview with Abramoff himself. Gibney said the rogue gave him plenty of input but the director couldn’t get a camera into prison. He blames a rival feature film drama with the same name Casino Jack being made by director George Hickenlooper and starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff. That film did meet with Abramoff in prison. “Hickenlooper said, ‘if only Mr. Gibney had bothered to take the trouble to reach out to Jack’, but the fact is I spent a lot of time with him ,” said Gibney, who is bitter about the rival film. “I was upset when they appropriated a title we made public early on, and then they did a title search and pounced anyway. But I’ve produced and edited fiction films, and it’s an advantage here to show the real larger-than-life subject. Will Smith is a great actor, but he was not Muhammad Ali, and Spacey is magnificent but he’s no Jack Abramoff.”

In Klores’ hoops documentary, the surprise for me, a longtime Knicks fan, is how funny it is in retrospect. Because it was agony to watch the 1990s rivalry between the Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks and Reggie Miller’s upstart Indiana Pacers. I saw the film at a screening with a small group of Gotham journalists and the iikes of Knicks legend Earl Monroe and Spike Lee, and the latter steals this film with a display of disarming humor. That almost makes me forgive him for the infamous time his courtside trash talk during a blowout goaded Miller into a super-human 25-point fourth quarter comeback performance that was soul-crushing to any Knicks fan. Also a surprise is how funny Ewing is: during his playing days the only way to get a smile out of the ferocious competitor was to turn him upside down.

Klores smartly traces Miller’s arrogance to an inferiority complex when compared to sister Cheryl, arguably the greatest female player ever. Klores is keeping short the Q-&-A tomorrow so the sports fan audience won’t miiss the Jets play the Colts in the AFC Championship game. Miller, now an announcer, will be at the premiere.

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