Monday, July 25, 2011

An American Tragedy: Honest Man, R. Budd Dwyer

When acquitted by a Bronx jury of a specious political prosecution, former Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan famously asked “which office do I go to get my reputation back?” Former Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer understood the sentiment. At least, Donovan survived with his life and liberty relatively intact, whereas Dwyer took his own life during a press conference. While the media has always preferred to dwell on those final shocking images, James Dirschberger shines a light on Dwyer’s record of public service and the controversial prosecution that precipitated his suicide in the new documentary, Honest Man: the Life of R. Budd Dwyer (trailer here), which screens in Los Angeles this Friday.

The media assumed Dwyer’s fateful presser would be their gloat session, where the recently convicted Dwyer would announce his resignation. Instead, they stood by watching as a man shot himself and then ran the video over and over again. Thanks to dubious testimony extracted under a plea bargain agreement, Dwyer had just been convicted of bribery, even though he never received any money from the government witness in question. He had not been sentenced yet, which proved to be the tragically significant impetus for his final. Once that would occur, his family would lose all his pensions, while stuck with his mounting legal bills.

The refrain frequently heard in Honest Man is if this could happen to Dwyer, it could happen to anyone. There is no question John Torquato intended to bribe Dwyer for a state contract he was already best qualified to win. However, the prosecution conceded no money ever changed hands. Instead, acting U.S. Attorney James West offered the reputedly mobbed-up Torquato and his attorney William Smith a deal if they would establish Dwyer’s intention to accept.

Frankly, Honest Man largely glosses over most of the ins and outs of the legal proceedings. It also stretches the point when attempting to connect Dwyer’s prosecution to his public disagreements with then Gov. Richard Thornburgh, West’s former boss and immediate predecessor at the U.S. Attorney’s office, never establishing any solid linkage between them.

However, when addressing the human cost of West’s prosecution the film is remarkably powerful. Although the pain is still very real and acute, Dwyer’s family members talk eloquently and openly on-camera about the case. Perhaps the most compelling (and easily the most cinematic) figure though is Vince Yakowicz, an old school Democratic appointee Dwyer held-over when he was elected treasurer. West however, is only seen in file footage. His absence speaks volumes.

Arguably, the strongest takeaway from Honest Man is the profound inadequacy of the media. Obviously, nobody would have understood the case from their coverage. We watch nauseating footage of the so-called journalists defending their coverage, including former state capitol reporter Tony Romeo, who claims Dwyer “had himself blockaded and barricaded pretty good.” Yet, somehow reporters were able to get around the small podium Romeo found so daunting, to take reams of photos of Dwyer’s body. According to Dirschberger, the local stations have been happy to license their video of the moment of impact far and wide, but none of them were willing to release footage of his speech up to the appearance of the gun. That pretty much says it all, does it not?

Honest Man is an important film in several respects. It makes a lucid (but not quite conclusive) case that Dwyer was the victim of a grave injustice. A former teacher and life-long Republican whose anti-Communism was confirmed in his youth while an exchange student in Poland (a fact one hopes the leftist blogger moderating the post-screening panel will respect), Dwyer had much to offer his state and country. Indeed, the world is poorer for the efforts and negligence of an expedient prosecutor and a complicit media. Sensitively helmed by Dirschberger (especially with respects to the notorious video), Honest Man is a cautionary documentary that demands a wide audience. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (7/29) in Los Angeles, presented at the Royal/T by Cinema Speakeasy.