There is a tremendously crucial documentary somewhere in James Dirschberger’s “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer.” Unfortunately, if honesty is to be celebrated here, I have to admit there’s a pretty weak film wrapped around the few minutes of truly interesting material. For those unfamiliar with either infamous deaths or Pennsylvania politics, Budd Dwyer was the state treasurer who shot himself during a press conference in 1987 and whose graphic death was aired on many news stations — not live — on the day. Even if you’re not a fan of “Faces of Death” type compilations, or a morbidly curious Googler, you’ve no doubt seen footage of his suicide during the “Happiness is a Warm Gun” montage from “Bowling for Columbine.” Sadly it’s a fairly well-known and widely seen tragedy, and few of us know anything about the man who did it or why.
Simple answer is that Dwyer committed suicide because he was convicted in a bribery scandal and sentenced to 55 years in prison, and he upheld his claim of innocence all the way. One additional factor seems to be that his killing himself while still technically in office allowed his family to collect pension benefits that would have been forfeited upon his imprisonment. Also, he drew a lot of attention to his case. Mostly, though, he became an iconic image of death with little context, and that’s where this documentary comes in. I only wish Dirschberger had framed it better, presenting the acknowledgment of this latter intention right away, and then going into that background Dwyer wished to shed light on. “Honest Man” primarily fails by wanting initially to be a biography of a man we have little reason to care about (yet).
The doc does actually open with news reports of the incident, without the graphic visuals, somewhat evoking the structure of “The Times of Harvey Milk.” But Dwyer was no Milk, and his life story isn’t all that significant or engrossing. Mostly we’re treated to close-up talking heads telling us how “good” he was. Of course, it’s primarily his wife and kids singing his praises so there’s not much surprise there. Dirschberger could have at least made the interviews either aesthetically pleasing or maybe shown respect to those he’s filming by making them more presentable to an audience. Dwyer’s son sweats profusely on the screen, a former colleague is framed harshly and engulfed in smoke, the author of a book on Dwyer wears a torn up shirt and looks rather sickly. I don’t think I’m projecting here; the cinematography is atrocious.
Dirschberger combines that adoring and chronicling interview material with terrible video archives strewn throughout that look like someone videotaped a TV playing the footage, as if a duplication or transfer was too much money and too much of a bother. “Honest Man” really is an ugly documentary, and I’m glad I didn’t see it on a bigger screen than my laptop. I know this is harsh, but I’d like to think that Dwyer deserved better. Even if his life wasn’t interesting enough to be worth a feature film, though, I would expect such a hagiographic portrait to be more tasteful and appealing to the senses, if not also entirely engaging. This is not what he shot his brains out for.
Rather than the life of an honest man, I would have preferred a documentary completely about the death of Dwyer. This is where the intrigue lies, and not strictly in a perverse sense. About an hour into this film Dirschberger gets into the outrageous circumstances of the press conference and the issue of the suicide being explicitly shown on daytime television, as well as its ease of circulation today courtesy of the Internet. There is footage of the death in full during this segment, and not the angle most people have seen, but what’s more fascinating is the aftermath as cameras keep rolling and snapping photos while the entire press corps is asked to leave, and they don’t. I was stunned to learn that, contrary to what I’d previously understood, the incident was not broadcast live, so the fact that people saw the suicide occur was a conscious decision by newscast producers, functioning like snuff film peddlers.
Was there good reason to show the death on commercial television? Is it okay to even include it in this film? The ethical debate that can go along with this is lengthy, and for good or bad or right or wrong I equate it with less direct visual records of death as those shots of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Challenger explosion, the latter of which happened a year prior to Dwyer’s suicide and was apparently discussed in accordance with it back then. There is an interview with at least one TV producer who talks on screen about his decision at the time, but the film doesn’t really press the matter as much as it could. Not that it needs to be an in-depth media studies thesis on the cult of death and documenting violence. It’s just a far more compelling and significant aspect of Dwyer’s story than the majority of what’s in the film.
Of course, that in and of itself is also quite meaningful and arousing. Dirschberger seems to have made the film to divert attention from the death and shed more light on the life, yet it has no way of being powerful enough to do this even were it a better crafted work. A documentary on this subject must respectfully tell some facts about the life and explain some of what led to the tragedy, maybe interspersed within a larger discussion of the big deal of Dwyer’s lugubrious legacy. It can’t pretend to believe anyone will be more interested in him than his final action and its ongoing transmission.
At the end of “Honest Man” I still have no greater comprehension of why he had to kill himself so publicly or why it had to be as publicly displayed as it was. I mostly just get that he was apparently an honest man, but that much I could have gleaned from the title alone.
“Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyere” opens today in Los Angeles and is available to purchase on DVD through the website.
Recommended If You Like: “The Times of Harvey Milk”; “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”; R. Budd Dwyer’s family