Eighty Four Films // 2010 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // July 30th, 2011
"At long last I can speak out." -- R. Budd Dwyer
On January 22, 1987, Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, convicted in a federal bribery scandal, held a press conference the day before he was to be sentenced. Most journalists, jaded by years of covering political scandals, assumed he would simply announce his resignation. Instead, Dwyer proclaimed his innocence, called for justice reform, and then, in front of the gathered reporters, pulled out a loaded .357 Magnum and shot himself.
Dwyer's on-camera suicide became a national sensation, though one that only lasted for a few days. Few reporters bothered to unravel the scandal behind the story, and the footage of Dwyer's suicide remains all that most people know of the case. What Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer does is examine a far more significant question: Who was Budd Dwyer? Most people assumed he was guilty and left it at that, but the truth, as is often the case, is murkier and far more complex. Honest Man doesn't necessarily argue for Dwyer's innocence; even to this day, it's impossible to know exactly what happened, since the case boiled down to Dwyer's word against his accuser, who was not exactly a man of unimpeachable integrity. It does argue, however, that Dwyer deserved better than he got, that he was a man who was punished unfairly for political reasons and that he wanted to leave a legacy far more honorable than his ugly, ignominious end. Honest Man doesn't vindicate Dwyer (and it's not even true that that was the filmmakers' intent) but it does something just as valuable: it humanizes him. After watching this film, it's hard to imagine anyone with any shred of humanity or self-respect taking ironic pleasure in Dwyer's suicide video.
Director James Dirschberger has done a superb job of assembling Honest Man. There are interviews with Dwyer's widow (who died in 2009, before the film was completed), Dwyer's son Robert and daughter Dyan, and several of his political friends and associates. The portrait of Dwyer that emerges in the film is one of a man who loved politics and government, not because he believed in power and self-aggrandizement but because he genuinely wanted to solve problems and serve the community. Dwyer instituted several technological and financial reforms that saved the state millions of dollars in previously lost revenue, he started a hotline for taxpayers to report government waste (it still exists today). Even though he was a devout Republican, he insisted that his deputy, a firm Democrat, stay in office to run the Treasury with him (the deputy, interviewed here, remained one of Dwyer's staunchest defenders). His belief in always doing the best for others, coupled with his easygoing, garrulous nature, made him perfectly suited for the political arena, in many ways.
Unfortunately, it also served him poorly in others. Honest Man takes a darker turn when it introduces, almost immediately, the men who could serve as the villains of this story. Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh, who feuded with Dwyer after Dwyer refused to use state funds to reimburse Thornburgh for personal expenses, is depicted as the shadowy force responsible for Dwyer's downfall. When Dwyer was accused of bribery in awarding a company a no-bid government contract, it was Thornburgh who selected an ambitious and controllable prosecutor who ensured that only Dwyer, and not one of Thornburgh's political allies, was charged. Moreover, the film argues convincingly that the case was flimsy. Here, Dirschberger scored a massive coup in landing an interview with William Smith, the company's lawyer who accused Dwyer of agreeing to accept a bribe. Smith asserts here, as he did in his original plea bargain, that when he and Dwyer were alone in Dwyer's office, he offered Dwyer a bribe and Dwyer agreed to accept. However, during Dwyer's trial, Smith testified under oath that he lied during his plea bargain to save his family. So either he lied at Dwyer's trial or he's lying now, and in either case, the idea of hanging an entire criminal case on his word is ludicrous. Even the prosecutor admitted that Dwyer never actually took any money (only agreed to do so), and since only two people know exactly what happened in that room and one is dead and the other keeps changing his story, Honest Man definitively concludes that Dwyer can and should be given the benefit of the doubt. If the film had done nothing else, it should be given credit for revealing that there's so much more to this story than Dwyer's spectacular demise.
The DVD is also well-produced. The anamorphic transfer and stereo mix are both adequate. This is a low-budget documentary so the technical quality isn't spectacularly great (and some of the '80s archival footage looks a bit rough) but the presentation gets the job done. Where the disc excels is in the extras. The best is the audio commentary by Dirschberger and producer/editor Matt Levie, who discuss how the film came about and include some surprising revelations about some of the interviewees and subjects. It's worth hearing if you liked the film. There's also a commentary track by Dyan and Rob Dwyer that's much harder to listen to, since they don't talk that much and mostly just offer some comments here and there. The filmmakers have also tracked down a series of campaign spots and virtually every one of Dwyer's filmed speeches, which offer some amusing retro thrills to see. Finally, in addition to the film's trailers, the disc is rounded out with Dwyer's last press conference, although it cuts off as Dwyer pulls out his gun. The DVD also includes some extensive DVD-ROM content, including several sizable articles and papers on the Dwyer case.
All of which makes Honest Man a superb documentary that takes a shocking story and tells it without stooping to sensationalism or exploitation. It would have been easy for the film to simply focus on Dwyer's suicide (which, in fact, is shown but not dwelt on). Instead, the filmmakers made the effort to dig deeper and try to find out the story behind the story. Of course, the film doesn't try to explain why Dwyer did what he did-only Dwyer ever knew that. It does, however, try to put Dwyer's final act in some sort of context that won't reduce it to cheap voyeurism. For that, Honest Man deserves to be seen by anyone looking for a thoughtful documentary.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eighty Four Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Official Site