Most people my age (30-something) only have vague memories of the 1980s' most infamous events. The space shuttle Challenger's destruction. The death of John Lennon and the assassination attempt on former president Ronald Reagan. The debut of New Coke. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. And, of course, the public suicide of Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, just one day before his sentencing for bribery. As a young boy, I remember being ushered out of the room as taped footage aired on the local news. Dwyer's suicide occurred less than two miles from our house, a fact that didn't resonate with me until several years later. Living and working in Harrisburg, PA for the entirety of my life thus far, the unfortunate death of Dwyer still hangs heavy over the city. Some believe he was guilty and some do not...but James Dirschberger's Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer aims to set the record straight, more than 20 years after his untimely demise.
Similar to scathing documentaries like 1997's excellent Waco: The Rules of Engagement, Honest Man presents the other side of an infamous event that's fallen out of the public eye. Unlike Waco, however, Dirschberger's film doesn't paint an entirely dark picture; instead, it also shows us a well-respected family man known for his honesty, integrity and good nature. Before that, we catch a glimpse of Dwyer's modest upbringing near Blooming Valley, PA, his early career as a high school teacher, a life-changing trip to Communist Poland and his desire to enter the world of politics. Dwyer's down-to-earth demeanor and strong sense of morality made him popular with voters, which led to successful runs in the PA House of Representatives and the PA Senate. Eventually, Dwyer was elected State Treasurer in 1980 and, as luck would have it, he was re-elected for a second term. During his tenure, Dwyer completely revamped the state government's way of doing business, largely due to the fledgling computer industry.
Unfortunately, trouble was already brewing by 1984. Millions of state employees had mistakenly overpaid their FICA tax (a payroll tax designed to fund Medicare and Social Security), so the state government chose to hire an outside firm to calculate refunds. State contracts were typically put out for bid, yet a company called CTA (Computer Technology Associates) would eventually be awarded the contract without competition. An investigation began, which led to a list of bribery recipients authored by CTA owner John Torquato, Jr. This list---which did not indicate that money had actually changed hands, or that the recipients were even aware of a bribery attempt---included the names of Dwyer and Republican State Committee chairman Robert Asher. Several years earlier, a number of state and local politicians had been found guilty of corruption, so it wasn't a particularly good time to be under the microscope.
In this case, however, paper-thin evidence proved to be more than enough: Dwyer was found guilty and faced a maximum prison sentence of 55 years and a $300,000 fine. His teacher's pension would also most likely be erased, leaving his wife and children in a difficult financial position. These reasons, and perhaps several others, led to that fateful day when Dwyer took his life at a press conference in his Harrisburg office.
It's a complicated story, to be sure, and Honest Man does a fine job of presenting it in an accessible manner. Of course, it helps that several of the key players are on hand to speak candidly about their involvement, including CTA lawyer William Smith (who openly admits to lying in court and has since been convicted of unrelated federal theft charges), campaign manager Fred McKillop and late chief deputy counsel Vince Yakowicz, among others. Without question, it's easy to see that Dwyer's criminal charges, trial and indictment were completely unwarranted; this makes Honest Man exponentially more engaging and, in some respects, infuriating. During the film's closing moments, Dwyer's wife Joanne (who passed away in 2009) longs for closure in regards to her late husband's sacrifice. Though she never got to see it, even-handed efforts like Honest Man should help the public realize that there was more to Budd Dwyer than his infamous suicide.
Of course, I'm approaching Honest Man from a somewhat slanted perspective. Landmarks that I see every day are used in establishing shots. Harrisburg's Capitol building [above], where I used to work, was the scene of Dwyer's death. Local news reporters, still familiar to me now, are shown in much younger times. Yet Honest Man's story is so engaging and accessible that it doesn't take a personal connection to draw in the viewer. This documentary (which premiered locally in October 2010) has since been issued on DVD by Eighty Four Films to help spread the word, and it pairs a decent technical presentation with a valuable assortment of extras. Combined with the strength of the main feature, Honest Man is easily one of the most impressive DVDs I've seen this year.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Honest Man looks about as good as can be expected, given most of the source material. According to producer/editor Matt Levie, vintage news reports were taken from original VHS recordings of extremely low quality, so a traditional presentation was scrapped in favor of a more stylistic approach. The result is an illusion of "live TV"; scan lines are present and the screen is slightly curved to resemble a picture tube viewed off-center. Though these infrequent clips are also cropped to fill the screen and the effect can be initially distracting, this is purely a stylistic choice and should be treated as such.
Recent interviews appear to be naturally lit and many of the backgrounds drown in a sea of blown-out white levels (another stylistic choice, at least in some cases), but everything is still quite watchable. Vintage photographs fare the best; many are in very good condition and pillarboxed accordingly. Digital problems, including combing and compression artifacts, are occasionally present but kept to a minimum. In any case, Honest Man deals with some rather raw subject matter, so the lack of polish is somewhat appropriate.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix doesn't aim high, but it's tough to complain overall. Vintage clips only sound as good as their source material allows, while newly-recorded interviews are clean and easy to understand. Some of the rougher bits have been paired with burnt-in English subtitles, but no other subtitles or captions have been provided during the main feature or bonus material. The film's understated score also comes through clearly and doesn't fight for attention with the dialogue or narration.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the plain-wrap menu designs provide easy, trouble-free navigation. This 76-minute film has been divided into roughly a dozen chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes a one-page transcript of Dwyer's final speech---or at least the one he planned to make. In hindsight, it's a nice touch.
A terrific assortment of bonus features is also included, and most of them greatly enhance the impact of the main feature. First up is a pair of feature-length Audio Commentaries
; the first features Dwyer's children, Rob and Dyan, and the second features director James Dirschberger and producer/editor Matt Levie. The "family commentary" is a bit uneven at times...but it's particularly valuable during the first act, as Rob and Dyan offer a fair amount of childhood memories and point out a few unidentified folks. From there, they understandably get a little less talkative, and most of Rob's later comments are purely knee-jerk reactions to CTA lawyer William Smith's comments. This is definitely a good commentary to have for posterity's sake, but a combined track (or the addition of a moderator) may have yielded slightly better results.
The "crew commentary" is more informative overall, as Dirschberger and Levie do a good job of keeping things moving from start to finish. Several years were spent on Honest Man, and they shed some light on the film's early stages, research, the difficulty of clearance issues (including 10 seconds of footage from 1960s Poland that took roughly six months to get) and much more. Dirschberger and Levie also briefly discuss the film's release and its initial impact, but also recognize that it's the public's job to help spread the word. This second track is particularly valuable on many levels---and as mentioned earlier, would have been even better had the two been combined in some manner.
Up next is an assortment of bonus clips, some of which can be partially seen during the main feature. From top to bottom, we're treated to a selection of Campaign Ads including "Eggs Benedict" (an attack on PA Auditor General Al Benedict [below left]), "Waste Line" (Dwyer's hotline to report government waste, which still works!) and a group of three additional ads from Dwyer's successful 1984 re-election campaign. Also here are two clips from Dwyer's 1980 and 1984 Swearing In at Harrisburg's Forum Building; these pieces of history appear to have been recorded on videotape from the audience and feature a few audio/video hiccups along the way. As a bonus, the second clip also includes a brief segment from a reception that took place right after the ceremony.
Last, but certainly not least, is an extended version of Dwyer's Final Speech [above right], taken from the only known copy in existence. This segment includes a few minutes of speaking from Dwyer before the more widely-circulated version begins, and it ends as Dwyer removes his .357 Magnum from a manila envelope. This clip is absolutely nerve-wracking from start to finish; from Dwyer's rushed, stammering delivery to the abrupt ending, most viewers will wish they could leap into the TV screen and stop it from happening. Overall, it's an absolutely essential piece of history and really puts an exclamation point on the bonus features in general.
Also included (and hidden on the disc as DVD-ROM content) is The Dwyer Archives, a selection of previously unreleased documents pertaining to Dwyer's court case and its resolution. Documents include "An American Tragedy" (a 78-page essay by Gregory Waples), the original 10-page CTA contract, Dwyer's 35-page final statements, the original 43-page criminal indictment, Dwyer's 3-page letter to then-president Reagan desperately pleading his case, and a 3-page Senate Resolution following his death. All are presented in PDF format for easy sharing, and several more can be found on the film's official site.
One of 2010's most scathing and important documentaries, Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer offers an even-handed account of an appallingly one-sided event in American politics. From recent interviews with key figures to rare glimpses into Dwyer's personal history, we're also given a unique portrait of a doomed man who left behind family, friends and supporters. Eighty Four Films' DVD presentation makes the most of limited source material, pairing a decent technical presentation with a host of multi-layered bonus features. For obvious reasons, all interested parties and documentary fans should consider a purchase of Honest Man as $20 well spent. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes at a local gallery and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.