Saturday, July 23, 2011

James Dirschberger's HONEST MAN: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer. Why hasn't this fine documentary seen wider theatrical play?


His actual death by suicide -- national news when it happened back in 1987 -- is now shown on YouTube for "entertainment." But as the man's daughter notes toward the end of yet another in this year's remarkable run of first-class documentaries, perhaps seeing this "suicide" video will get at least a few of its viewers to look further into the life of a rather amazing guy. This late, lamented fellow is the "star" of (and reason for) HONEST MAN: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, the infinitely sad, thought-provoking and oddly inspiring story of R. Budd Dwyer, who looks more and more like the last of that perhaps now nearly-extinct-species, the honest politician.

Filmmaker James Dirschberger (shown at left, he directed, produced and co-wrote the film with Adam Wroblewski), begins his movie with just a piece of that suicide, which of course hooks us and yet does not seem unnecessarily crass. This, after all, would appear to be what the man was noted for. One of the great accomplishments of the film is that, once you've finished it, you will find Mr. Dwyer notable for so much else that the suicide seems minor in comparison to the strength and honor of this man who, finally, felt he had to take that particular avenue. In fact, you may view the suicide as an almost rightful place in a history increasingly full of wrong-doing by others.

R. Budd Dwyer was, politically speaking, a Republican. (That's he, above, in a photo taken with, yes, Ron and Nancy; he's shown  to the left of Mrs. Reagan.) If you know anything about TrustMovies' current political leanings, you might expect me to be turned off by this fact. But, as I am now in my 70s, I can and do remember a time when there were actually some decent Republicans around the country -- people who did not march in lockstep with a bunch of would-be fascists and/or brainless tea-partiers with no understanding of history. When you see and hear the history and archival photos that director Dirschberger has come up with (thanks, no doubt to the Dwyer family), you'll understand something about what "an honest man" might have looked like a few decades back.

We get a good dose of Dwyer's family history (that's he as a fresh-faced youngster, at right, and early in his career as elected official, below), including the summer of '63 he spent in Poland, from which he returned shocked by what he had seen of the Communist dictatorship there. This was a guy, we soon learn, who believed in god, country and family, and actually seemed to have put those first in his life -- far above the materialistic values to which so many Republicans (and, sure, Democrats) then and now subscribe. The movie makes a good case for seeing this man as not only innocent of the charges eventually brought against him, but also as a genuine "innocent" -- someone whose life path had so far been filled with all good things gained honestly and directly, that when suddenly faced with conspiracy, lies and double dealing, he had not the political savvy or perhaps even the will to fight fire with fire.

These are assumptions on my part, but I don't think they're all that far afield. Nor perhaps will you, once you see this cogent and very well-organized film. There's a lot here: the Mafia, grudges, betrayals, press leaks and dirty politicians. Using intelligent and moving interviews with friends and family, and with one supposed friend, whom it would seem, lied to save either his skin or his family's, Dirschberger has put together a fine defense of Mr. Dwyer. The prosecution has already had its day, which we see from various testimony and newspapers (below). It seems also clear that grudge-bearing former Governor Dick Thornburgh (shown at left, three photos below) and other cronies were more than happy to get rid of a state treasurer who was the high-level honest man in a den of thieves.

A change of venue was ordered in the trial -- not, it seems, so that Dwyer could get a fair shake, but so the case would be taken out of the district in which he was greatly revered and placed in a venue of a "hanging judge, where the jurors were more likely to be swayed against him.

Dwyer was found guilty, but due to a technicality in Pennsylvania state law, he could continue serving until sentenced. In the time between, out of money due to the costs of the defending himself in the lengthy trial, Dwyer knew that if he waited until he was no longer in public office, his family would not get the pension it needed to survive. The filmmaker does not state this, but to me it seems clear that Dwyer, though he was greatly shaken and no doubt depressed at what he found a miscarriage of justice, would not have been considered the suicidal type. But faced with the possible ruin of his family (that's his wife, above, in the early days when the two kids were young), that pension and the procuring of it must have loomed very large in his mind. (It took some doing,  but the family did finally get that pension.)

I confess to being surprised that this film has not achieved a much higher profile and nationwide release. It is every bit as good in its way as the recent miscarriage-of-justice-themed documentary Crime After Crime. But perhaps being set in Pennsylvania makes it appear as only "local news." It's not. What this movie deals with is as important to our country, particularly now, as is the subject matter of any other documentary. Political corruption is endemic to, if not epidemic in, America. And Honest Man offers an interesting slice of this pie that we don't see often enough.

After a number of earlier screenings (not surprisingly, the film packed in more people in its run in Harrisburgh, PA, than did the combined audience for Inside Job and Waiting for Superman), the film has earned back in admissions nearly its entire budget.  It will open next in Los Angeles at the Cinema Speakeasy at the Royal/T in Culver City, this coming Friday, July 29, when members of the Dwyer family, James Dirschberger, and Trevor Moore (founder of comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know) will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A, moderated by Truthdig.com‘s Kasia Anderson. In conjunction with this L.A. premiere, Honest Man will soon be released across multiple digital platforms including Amazon VOD,  Hulu -- and eventually, we hope Netflix, although as yet, you cannot even "save it" there. Come on Netflix, do your customers a service and stock this film!

Photos above courtesy of Eighty Four Films

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this write up. Makes me want to seek this out and understand how this could have happened.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. That's exactly what I hoped to accomplish with this post. I also hope there are more of you out there who will seek out this documentary and give it a watch. It's a good film and and important story.