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Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer

Face of Death

Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer

Budd Dwyer, the politician who committed suicide on live TV in 1987.

You may not remember the name of Pennsylvania politician Robert “Budd” Dwyer, but if you were of age in the 1980s, you probably saw him die.

On January 22, 1987, during a press conference at his office in Harrisburg, Dwyer, the state treasurer of Pennsylvania, drew a .357 Magnum from his briefcase and shot himself in the head. News footage of his death was played nationally, leading to a debate over the limits of what should be broadcast despite being of actual news value. (In an era when the gruesome videotape series Faces of Death was all the rage with teens, it seemed to many adults like a line that should not have been crossed.)

Lost in that debate was the reason for Dwyer’s act—a sad irony given that Dwyer apparently killed himself at least partly to gain attention for what he claimed was an unjust verdict that had been rendered against him.

Dwyer’s story is the basis for the compelling documentary Honest Man, the result of six years of work by filmmaker James Dirschberger. Though he now lives in San Francisco, Dirschberger is a Buffalo native who will be paying a return visit to show his film this Friday night (Jan. 7) at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center.

With the cooperation of Dwyer’s widow and two children, Dirschberger illustrates his early years as a student teacher moved to enter politics by a trip to Poland in the early 1960s. By all accounts a jovial man (he physically fit the picture) with the knack of winning the approval of people he met, he was a state senator through the 1970s before seeking and winning the position of state treasurer in 1981, a job he sought because it meant he wouldn’t have to be separated from his family five days a week.

From there the story becomes complicated. Dwyer sought to computerize state finances in order to get interest out of monies that were otherwise sitting unused. Discovering that many state employees had unwittingly overpaid federal taxes, he sought a computer-savvy accounting firm to deal with this substantial problem. One of these was CTA, owned by a man who apparently felt that bribery was a necessary part of business.

It’s difficult to describe cases like this without frequent use of adjectives like “apparently” and “by all accounts”: Truth is a chimera, and no one will probably ever know exactly what did and did not happen in this case. Having already tangled with then-governor Dick Thornburgh (under circumstances which the film suggests were exacerbated by the press), Dwyer was accused of agreeing to accept a bribe. Protesting his innocence, he rejected a plea bargain and went to trial. To his surprise he was found guilty. Under a judge known to be draconian, he faced a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison.

It’s the nature of a documentary like this that people on one side of the story are much more likely to talk to a filmmaker, and Honest Man is heavy with interviews from Dwyer’s family and people he worked with. But Dirschberger also interviews two journalists who wrote books about the case, as well as a figure involved with CTA whose testimony, while somewhat ambiguous, is the most valuable bit of evidence on Dwyer’s behalf. Dirschberger says that had he found evidence pointing against Dwyer’s innocence he would have included it, but the fact that there was none to be found doesn’t entirely prove Dwyer’s innocence to the viewer. (One wonders, for instance, at Dwyer’s refusal to appeal his verdict.)

Guilty or innocent, the more important point is to bring us into the mind of a man who, despite no history of depression, chose such an extreme end. You may want to be warned that the full footage of Dwyer’s death is shown here. You’ve probably seen worse pieces of film: It happens suddenly, and he is quickly off screen. At the time, some television stations that chose not to run the full footage instead ended on a freeze-frame a split second before Dwyer pulled the trigger. To me, that image, a face frozen in desolation and panic, is more haunting than the sight of the action that followed.

Watch the trailer for Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer

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