The Jack Abramoff story has it all: African tyrants, Pacific sweatshops, Indian casinos, Miami mob hits, jailed politicians, big wads of cash, and action star Dolph Lundgren gunning down bad guys.
It's like the fever dream of a Hollywood mogul -- which is, in part, why Oscar winner Alex Gibney decided to turn the Abramoff saga into a documentary.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and the town where eyeballs will be riveted, Washington, D.C.
"It's as though he cast himself in the role of some action-spy thriller," Gibney tells NPR's Guy Raz. "But I think there was a lot about the Abramoff story that we didn't really understand."
Kevin Spacey has starred in a fictional version of this story, also called Casino Jack, that's due to hit theaters later this year. But Gibney's documentary arrived first, with a premiere at this winter's Sundance Film Festival.
With an array of archival clips, Gibney traces Abramoff's rise from young Republican, allied with Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, to Hollywood producer to Washington superlobbyist.
And some of the most dramatic moments come in interviews with Washington power players -- especially former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
"What he was candid about was the power of money," Gibney says. "Tom DeLay believes that in some sense that you should be able to buy and sell congressmen like sneakers. Now, he would say you always have to do it according to the law ... but he believes the market is the ultimate value."
Gibney visited Abramoff several times in the western Maryland prison where he's being held -- the former lobbyist is due to be released later this year. But ultimately, he refused to be interviewed on screen.
And despite all the sensational aspects of the story, the filmmaker worries that Abramoff is now being viewed as merely a Washington sideshow.
"In many ways," Gibney says, "what he did -- though he did it recklessly, he did it way over the top -- in some ways, he was an exaggeration of business as usual rather than an exception to the rule."