In a centuries-old Pennsylvania government building on a snowy day in late January 1987, R. Budd Dwyer shot himself at the end of a press conference most expected to simply end with him announcing his resignation as State Treasurer. The video of his shocking suicide was later broadcast state and nation-wide, and can now easily be found on YouTube and in GIFs all over the internet. The band Filter even wrote a glibly titled song about it, “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” The 2010 documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer attempts to provide context to the widely-seen clip, and the story is a fascinating one, even if the doc mishandles some of the more confusing details.
Budd Dwyer was a Pennsylvania-born teacher-turned-politician who lived out his own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, albeit at the state government level instead of federal. Just like Jimmy Stewart’s memorable Mr. Smith, Dwyer was an idealist who was eventually chewed up and spit out by the realities of a corrupt system, and then in his final act he jumped ship to another famous fictional protagonist, Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman, by committing suicide for mostly insurance-related reasons (in his case, it was pension-related instead of insurance).
Not that Honest Man makes any of those connections. Those are simply the overwhelming comparisons which immediately jumped out at me, highlighting just how much Dwyer’s ultimately tragic reality resembles some of our most famous fiction. Honest Man cares not for such mythology-building, though, instead busying itself with a straightforward telling of the Bud Dwyer story via a combination of archival footage, photographs and talking head interviews with Bud’s family, friends and biographers. And at a mere 75 minutes long, Honest Man doesn’t waste much time, plowing through most of Bud’s childhood and early professional life to get to the good stuff, somewhat glossing over the fact that he actually served for 10 years as a State Senator before becoming State Treasurer. That’s why his hair in the archival footage goes from brown to grey so quickly.
However, the pre-State Treasurer section of the doc communicates what it needs to, establishing that a) Dwyer’s political aspirations first started when he spent a semester abroad in Poland and witnessed communism first hand and b) when he did run for office he did so on just $50,000 in donations and never asked to find out who his donors were or how much they donated.
The latter is but one of the points Honest Man goes out of its way to make in establishing that the thing Dwyer was later accused and convicted of, i.e., taking a bribe from a company seeking a state contract, was completely inconsistent with his track record. Of course, it makes that point via interviews with those sympathetic to Dwyer, and only offers up one person with a slightly contrary opinion, the imbalance either being because Dwyer really was that screwed over by the system or because his various oppressors have since passed away or refused to be interviewed or weren’t even asked. Thus, Honest Man is a documentary in which people looking back on the events lament what happened while archival footage paints various judges, lawyers, reporters and politicians in the most negative light possible. Is that simply the way history has judged the case? Or is it how the documentarians have chosen to frame the story?
I don’t know. I don’t know anything about this story beyond this doc and a subsequent read of Bud Dwyer’s wikipedia page, but the facts do seem to support the contention that Dwyer was ultimately the victim of a political feud with the state Governor and an opportunist acting state attorney looking to make his first big conviction.
That much is clear from Honest Man. What’s less clear is whether or not Dwyer’s suicide plan worked (according to Wikipedia, it did-his suicide preserved the $1.28 million state pension for his family he was about to be robbed of) or what specific lies were told on the witness stand to bring about his conviction (one key witness admits to lying, but then accuses everyone else of lying, without going into specifics though). However, while Man may be a little lacking in the details area it nails the human interest angle, capturing the mental and emotional anguish of Budd’s widow and now-adult children, none of whom had any inkling that Bud was suicidal.
But, of course, his suicide looms large over the doc, which begins by playing the footage leading up to the exact moment he shot himself before stopping short of showing his sudden and grisly end. This creates a slight tension in the back of the viewer’s mind as to whether or not Honest Man will actually show the full suicide, not dissimilar to the tension felt in Kate Playing Christine and Christine (both of which dealt with the life and death of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who shot herself live on air). That Honest Man does eventually decide to show the suicide is interesting considering all the finger pointing it does against the local news stations that broadcast it back in ‘87, but the argument is likely that to best appreciate the story of Budd Dwyer you need to see how it ended, how an honest and good man driven by idealism and whole-hearted belief in American values could be laid so low by a cruel and uncaring reality that eats up honest men for breakfast.
Note: As of this writing, Honest Man is available to stream for Prime customers on Amazon.