DOCUMENTARY WEEK: Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer (2010)

I was 15 years old when R. Budd Dwyer killed himself on live TV. Many stations refused to show the full footage, like KDKA, WPXI in Pittsburgh broadcast the footage uncensored on an early newscast, as they believed that kids wouldn’t be home to see it. That said — there was a snowstorm so many of us were home early. Many kids reacted just like they did to the Challenger crash, with dark humor being the only way to deal with it. I’ve since learned that a study of the incidence of the jokes showed that they were told only in areas where stations showed the uncensored footage.

Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer attempts to tell the story behind the man who killed himself with a .357 Magnum after being implicated in a scandal with Computer Technology Associates (CTA)

The Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dwyer had run as a common man from a small town and throughout this documentary, this fact — and the feeling that he let down his hometown and the people that believed in him — is drummed home.

Everyone has a side to their story in this, including the last interview filmed with his wife before she died and his children. There’s also some incredible scenes William T. Smith, the person whose testimony convicted Dwyer. I wonder how much of the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul character of James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill/Saul Goodman is based on this guy. He really seems to be a real-life Bob Odenkirk character.

This is a balanced documentary that really lets you come to your own conclusion. Sadly, I feel like politics have only gotten worse since Dwyer’s death.

The film also impacted me because Dwyer was often at the center of tape trading in the days before the internet. I’m a big fan of sites like the Found Footage Festival, who recently discussed with David Cross how he started trading tapes. My history of video mix tapes is similar — there was always someone who had a VHS tape at a party that had something you had only heard of. There were things like Pastor Gas, where televangelist Robert Tilton was overdubbed with fart noises. There was always Faces of Death. And there was always grainy footage of R. Budd Dwyer ending his life on live television.

We became desensitized to it. As each progressive generational dub was made, the footage became as hard to see as our morals. There was always a race to find the next crazy thing, to see something we shouldn’t see. At that time, there was just a strange subculture that wanted to own these moments. I’m not saying that everyone wanted to see extreme things. But the majority of mixtapes were often chock full of things like this.

Watching this film, I remembered seeing Dwyer more times than I’d like to think. And the suicide has reverberated throughout pop culture, inspiring songs like Marilyn Manson’s “Get Your Gunn” (complete with a sample of Dwyer’s voice), Kreator’s “Karmic Wheel” and Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot.”

This film made me think about my ethics and about tape trading before the internet blew finding a clip wide open. And most importantly, it made reconsider a man that I’ve always thought was guilty and took the coward’s way out because his back was to the wall. Trust me — it’s not as simple as that.

If you’d like to see this for yourself, check out the official website or watch it on Amazon Prime.

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