Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer:
It's impossible to reconcile the image of the sweet, goofy grin plastered on R. Budd Dwyer's face as he gazes out of the Honest Man DVD cover with what most people know of him. Producer Matt Levie and producer/director James Dirschberger work mightily to do just that in this heartbreaking documentary. Inasmuch as Dwyer's story centers on a specious political-criminal scandal decades old, definitive answers may never come. Yet this documentary does as much to exonerate the man as is humanly possible, giving a true bread-and-circuses spectacle a human face.
Residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of a certain age remember the scandal, and have their own opinions. On the face of it, State Treasurer Dwyer was accused of accepting a bribe in exchange for awarding a no-competition contract to an out-of-state computer firm. Indicted and facing a 55-year prison sentence, his response was to stage a TV news-documented press conference during which he committed suicide.
The story is far more complex than that, but due to Dwyer's methodology, and the Internet, millions have seen the suicide, and only the suicide. And at best, this is because of morbid curiosity. What is lost, even to those familiar to the case, is the story of the man. What is lost is what Dwyer wanted to accomplish.
Dirschberger and Levie bring those losses to the forefront with grace, power, class and dignity. This is a respectful, intelligent job from graphic design on down; a movie that needs to be seen by anyone who has ever watched the suicide video, seen the pictures, or who might believe in Dwyer's ultimate mission. The filmmakers assemble a staggering amount of information, archival footage, and powerful interviews, including one amazing subject who represents a stunning 'get.'
Dwyer's children, his widow, his sister, friends, and political associates all go to bat for the man. Obviously it's an emotional ride for all of them, as they reminisce about Budd's earliest days, through his college years, to a life changing summer in communist Poland and on into his seemingly blessed political career. As Dwyer himself says during one of the few times we hear his own voice, "only in America" could a small town boy with no political base rise to such a vaunted elected office. Many expected him to govern the state some day.
Sadly, that was never to be. Honest Man builds its case meticulously, bringing to mind Errol Morris' best work. Avalanches of after-the-fact testimony make it abundantly clear Dwyer was a scrupulously honest - perhaps too open - family man with a political heart intent only on improving government. Yet Dwyer's contact with John Torquato Jr., owner of the company awarded the contract in question, brought him down.
A curiously prosecuted case seemed to railroad Dwyer, forcing him to face a lengthy prison sentence, a huge fine, and loss of the pension upon which his family would have to depend. The filmmakers raise a number of interesting points seemingly pointing to a real miscarriage of justice, and Dwyer, sensing this, for all intents and purposes engineered a public self-sacrifice which he hoped would, among other things, bring about an end to political corruption.
This brave documentary is a near seamless, stunning endorsement of Dwyer's love for his family and his country. At a short 75-minutes, it does everything but bring true justice to bear on the case, even with astounding interview footage of Torquato's attorney William Smith (currently facing unrelated corruption charges - go figure) who admits to perjuring himself, and ultimately sacrificing Dwyer, in order to avoid prosecution. As a look at what political corruption can do to lives, and how it can debase truth and justice, Honest Man is truly sobering. As a way to turn a sick Internet meme back into a human being, and to begin to honor R. Budd Dwyer's wish that his death be not in vain, Honest Man is an overpowering achievement.
Presented in 16 X 9 widescreen, Honest Man reflects a myriad of sources as well as possible. Some bits of footage and photos are bracketed, while archival news footage is cropped, looking as much like old VHS footage as possible. Contemporary interviews, of course, look much better. As with most historical documentaries, you simply have to take what you can get, either hoping for the best quality you can find, or understanding stylistic choices made for specific intent. Only very occasionally do compression artifacts pop up, otherwise, a fine job is done to make this documentary look strong and effective.
Similarly, archival audio is subject to the vagaries of time. Contemporary interview subjects come through loud and clear in this Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo presentation, while the powerful soundtrack is tastefully mixed so as not to compete with dialog, but to enhance the mood.
Extras are packed in, including two commentary tracks. Track one, Commentary with Dwyer's Children Rob and Dyan is spare and painful to listen to in its frequent silence. No one should really have to watch a documentary about their father's suicide, much less comment on it, though the pair delivers some heartwarming reminiscences mixed in with their anger. It's somewhat refreshing, then, to listen to track two, Commentary with producer/director James Dirschberger and producer Matt Levie, who both provide more pedestrian, and occasionally funny, anecdotes about production of the movie, as well as even more insight and information into the case and its participants.
Campaign Ads (about three-minutes worth) highlight Dwyer's good natured, political bulldog attitude, and include a humorous Eggs Benedict Ad in which he slams an opponent. An ad for Dwyer's Waste Line encourages citizens to report government waste. Trailers for the Honest Man documentary are included, as is footage from Dwyer's 1980 and 1984 Swearing In Ceremonies - about 30-minutes worth of footage for those who want to get an even deeper sense of Dwyer's political message. Clear footage of Dwyer's Final Speech (thankfully minus the suicide itself) is terrifically sad, as it showcases Dwyer's nervous sweating and obvious discomfort as he defends himself and derides the press and those who miscarried justice, all while knowing that he is about to end his life. Hidden DVD-Rom features in the form of The Dwyer Archives provide dozens of pages of documents, a lengthy essay, and more.
R. Budd Dwyer may never be vindicated in a court of law, but this astoundingly powerful documentary is likely the next best thing. Dwyer is not just a suicide you can watch on the Internet. His sacrifice was one for his family and his country. Through this film, he continues to defend his innocence, asking for legal reform and a return to the principles that make this country great. To restore Dwyer's humanity and your belief in the potential of our government and legal system, this must-see documentary is Highly Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com