This Memorial Day weekend, The Congressman, the earnest new film by Huntington native and former Democratic Rep. Robert Mrazek, opens in Yellow Springs, Ohio; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Hartford, Connecticut and Kansas City, Missouri.
Starring Treat Williams in the title role, it’s a heartfelt, gently humorous and strongly patriotic look at an elected public official whose idealism has almost run dry—like the sour mash whiskey in his silver flask.
Mrazek, now 70, first entered office as a Suffolk County legislator, and then went on to serve five terms in Congress. He retired in 1993 to write military-themed novels and nonfiction—and he’s since published eight books.
And so it was like a homecoming for him, his friends and his loyal supporters who’d worked on his campaigns, when his debut movie premiered April 29 at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.
After he left the Navy, he’d gone to the London Film School but he returned to the States in 1968 after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, saying recently that having a movie career at the time felt “kind of trivial.” He got a job working with Indiana Sen. Vance Hartke, one of the leading anti-Vietnam War Democrats in the U.S. Senate, before heading back to Long Island and beginning his own political pursuits. Decades later Mrazek’s film career is finally taking off, thanks to the intervention of Fred Roos, who produced Francis Ford Coppola’s films and liked his script so much he wanted Mrazek to co-direct the movie.
At the pre-screening reception, Mrazek reportedly brought down the house when he jokingly told the Cinema Arts Centre’s co-director Charlotte Sky that he was running for Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-Dix Hills) open seat and needed the audience’s full support plus “about $10 million bucks, which is five times the size of the budget for the film you’re going to see tonight,” according to the Northport Observer.
Interestingly, Mrazek is not the only Huntington-based politician with a creative streak. Israel recently published his debut satirical novel, The Global War on Morris, which the Washington Post’s Book World editor, Ron Charles, called “spirited and funny.”
In Mrazek’s movie, Treat Williams, who played Sen. Ted Kennedy in HBO’s recent movie about Judge Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, is Rep. Charlie Winship, a jaded nine-term Congressman from Maine whose life is a mess. His marriage is on the rocks, he’s drinking like a fish, and his idealism is shot. A former Vietnam veteran who saw combat as a Marine at Khe Sanh, Winship once vowed to make each day count after he held off an assault by the Vietcong.
As you sit through the film, you can’t help but wonder how much of what you see actually happened to Mrazek and how much he invented for narrative effect.
But when we first see Winship, he’s on the House floor with his feet propped on his desk while his colleagues all stand up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Tellingly, the scene is shot through the lens of someone’s camera—and we soon learn that the paparazzi photographer had an ulterior motive: to paint Winship as an unpatriotic slime ball.
After the opening credits, a quick collage of 1960s’ images including JFK, LBJ and anti-war protests culminating in a demonstrator holding up a sign that says, “Fuck the Draft,” we see Winship on his way back to his office being stopped by a lobbyist who tells the Congressman that he’s just gotten him a twenty-grand campaign donation. Distracted (or more likely thirsty), Winship brushes past the man without expressing his gratitude, prompting the lobbyist to utter: “Then fuck you, buddy!”
What follows is a news cycle blasting Winship for not standing up for the Pledge. The smear turns out to be a hatchet job perpetrated by another oleaginous operative played to perfection by George Hamilton, who could have stolen the movie if he’d wanted to. In this case, he’s Laird Devereaux, a smiling cobra fronting for a huge mega-giant corporate seafood monster that wants to scarf up all the lobster off the Maine coast. To make that acquisition happen, he’s trying to undermine Winship’s own chief of staff, an uptight young man named Jared Barnes (Ryan Merriman), promising to introduce him to “exceptional friends” and boasting that the “people I work for, or with, are going to run the country someday.”
From Washington the film shifts to Maine, where for decades Mrazek himself has lived on Monhegan Island, 12 nautical miles from Boothbay. In the movie it’s called Catatonk. But before Winship and Martin board the Sea Hag to meet the hard-pressed locals trying to preserve their way of life from commercial exploitation, there are several poignant scenes on the mainland that show what Mrazek was aiming for.
In one, Winship stops at his soon-to-be former residence, where his ex-wife is packing up their things because they’re selling the house. Right outside the door on the front lawn he’s stopped by an eccentric constituent who barges out of the bushes to beg the Congressman to give him a patronage post because its current occupant is in intensive care. Says Winship with shock and awe, “You’re asking me about getting a job while the man is still alive!” Once inside, surrounded by the debris of his failed marriage, he tells his wife that he never stopped loving her—he just stopped loving her well. It’s a touching vignette, because it comes after a hint that he’s been unfaithful. Then he admits he’s afraid of becoming “irrelevant” in Congress.
As you sit through the film, you can’t help but wonder how much of what you see actually happened to Mrazek and how much he invented for narrative effect. Certainly, once the movie leaves the coast behind, you can feel Mrazek’s love for Down East way of life. At Huntington, he told the audience that “The Congressman” is “a heartfelt meditation…particularly upon what it means to be an American.” Williams, who co-produced the film, called it “a little movie with a big heart.” That’s a very apt description.
But its creative formula won’t work for every cineaste. There are no space aliens or zombies, no evil terrorists, no sinister suspense, no ticking time bombs. And compared to the denizens of a typical indie art movie, these characters are much too normal with a few humorous exceptions.
Sometimes you can see the plot twists coming a mile away, like when Winship meets Rae Blanchard, his multi-tasking tour guide, a 43-year-old divorcee who is the island’s constable, chief garbage collector and ombudswoman, played with a mix of tenderness and toughness by Obie-award winner Elizabeth Marvel. Congressman Winship has a bad back and, wouldn’t you know, among her many talents Blanchard also gives great massages.
To some hardcore political junkies, “The Congressman” probably won’t have enough cynicism to satisfy them, but this is a movie about a disillusioned politician rediscovering his idealism so maybe it’s not meant for them anyway. Certainly, given Mrazek’s long career in public service, it’s a worthy achievement. And in the genre of movies about American politics, I certainly enjoyed it much more than the sickly saccharine “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 take on corruption in Congress, which recently aired on PBS.
Starring James Stewart, Jefferson Smith is a “perfect man, never been in politics,” who’s being recruited by Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) , a crooked powerbroker in cahoots with Sen. Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a pol on his payroll, to replace a deceased Senator so a rigged land deal can go through.
This movie had its premiere on Oct. 17, 1939 at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., at a screening sponsored by the National Press Club. More than 4,000 guests, including 45 Senators, were invited. The press and the politicians reportedly attacked the film as “anti-American” and “pro-Communist” because it dared to portray corruption in our government. Imagine that! A film so sentimental and sappy today that it’s hard to sit through without grimacing, especially when Gov. Hubert “Happy” Hopper’s children champion Smith at the dinner table because he runs the Boy Rangers (supposedly the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t allow its name to be used), who put out a little newspaper when they’re not having good clean fun. The movie cemented Stewart’s Hollywood status as a star, as he epitomized the bumbling but earnest patriotic bumpkin thrust into the Senate by a vile political machine.
But some scenes, such as the powerbroker’s brutal efforts to squash dissent and eliminate sympathetic coverage of Sen. Smith’s filibuster, did have an unmistakable edge, and I was not surprised to learn that it had been banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s USSR. When this movie came out, the allies were on the run in Europe. Capra made his classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946, after the war against fascism was over.
In “The Congressman,” Winship refers to that Capra movie about what happened in Bedford Falls, not the film about Capitol Hill, telling his female companion as they gaze on the rolling Atlantic that he’s afraid Congress has entered “a moral and political Ice Age.” This movie may not melt too many hearts but it’s easy to see why Treat Williams jumped at the chance to act in it. As the lead, he gets to deliver a fiery speech in a high school back on the mainland to an angry crowd pumped up by a right-wing media propaganda campaign.
Winship recounts his combat experience in Vietnam, defending American values on the frontlines, and says that patriotism is more than a bumper sticker or a soundbite. Needless to say, this movie has a happy ending. Some people won’t like that, but so it goes. I’m glad Mrazek got his chance to see his vision on the silver screen. Bravo, Congressman!