When I read the synopsis of The Congressman, written, directed (co-directed, co-produced by Jared Martin), and co-produced by a former Congressman from Long Island, U.S. Rep. Robert J. Mrazek, I was curious. After seeing the film I was pleasantly surprised. The film, which touches upon many elements based on the life of Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), is not what one would expect amidst the current crop of films and TV shows about politicians. One reason is that Congressman Charlie Winship, portrayed by Treat Williams in a measured, thoughtful, spot-on performance, goes through a reawakening of self. A politician undergoing an inner revolution and overthrow of moral lapses? What? This is so astounding, it may be underestimated by those used to “in-your-face” febrile, political fare.
Can you name many politicians who have undergone a transformation that takes them out of the public limelight and away from the moneyed classes and revolving door lobbying? A change happens to Charlie Winship because at heart, he is a political anomaly with grounded values. He actually cares about his constituents, and they are the little people.
In the film The Congressman Charlie Winship is in many ways antithetical to what we have come to associate with the mainstream politician whose mantra (behind closed doors), is “greed is good” for my corporate cronies. Since the Reagan era politicians and their attendant lobbyists more than ever have embraced with ferocity Adam Smith’s Vile Maxim: “all for ourselves and nothing for other people.” Such folks use their political position to feather their nests to pass through the revolving doors into corporate heaven. This has become a sad norm. Maine Congressman Charlie Winship doesn’t measure up to it, though aide Jared Barnes (Ryan Merriman), sorely covets Winship’s position and will do anything to usurp it.
After introductory montage which briefly chronicles Charlie’s life and highlights the era of the 1960s, we see glimpses of young Charlie Winship, his naivete, innocence and growth into a young man participating in the Viet Nam war. The filmmakers portray a lead in where Winship doesn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and is illegally videoed. It is a key hook to presenting the film’s themes and conflicts. We understand that Charlie is in a political mine field and we are about to see what he is made of.
The political grind has weathered and worn down Charlie Winship. Revealed is the current backdrop of his frenetic, high pressured lifestyle. Behind the scenes, unbeknownst to him, a shock wave that will rock his political career is building. It comes in the form of lobbyist Laird Devereaux (the charming, smarmy, devilish George Hamilton), who is manipulating Charlie’s Chief of Staff, Jared Barnes (the complex, innocent appearing, but darkly conniving Merriman). Devereaux’s honey words intimate a controlling velvet, iron glove as he promises quid pro quos of money, liaisons and a career in corporate a reward for Barnes’ long haul of eventually taking over Charlie’s job with Devereaux’s support so Barnes will pass legislation favorable to Devereaux’s handlers.
It is obvious Charlie is not amenable to Devereaux’s machinations because the lobbyist is forced to squeeze Barnes to influence Charlie. Charlie is his own man, though he appears unsettled. Nevertheless, this independence is a liability and nefarious lobbyists will have their way. How will the situation pan out?
Conflicts abound in the political arena. We understand that they are present in Barnes’ life because he likes Winship and feels rank about running roughshod over him. Conflicts also circumscribe Charlie’s life when we discover that all is not sitting well in his soul and darkness is sifting him. The tell tale signs are there; drinking at odd hours of the day, smashing in the nose of a fellow congressman, his comment that he badly needs to get away on vacation, the final dissolution of his marriage to Casey Winship (Jayne Atkinson), beautifully rendered by Williams and Atkinson in a poignant scene.
Neither Charlie nor Casey can contend with the situational winds of his job which have lacerated their bonds into mere fleeting memories of once genuine involvement. In their final discussion Charlie ruefully admits he wasn’t around for his wife and family, but maintains, “I never stopped loving you” then adds that he just didn’t love her enough. The sacrifices he made for the common good may have been outstanding, but they came at a great cost: Casey’s love, their relationship. In his portrayal of Winship, Williams makes it apparent that the hurt and self-disappointment Charlie feels is acute and it becomes a strong motivation for his desire to break away from all that is associated with the nullifying aspects of his political “life.”
The toxicity of politics and Washington corruptions and double-dealings weaves undercurrents throughout the film. We see how Charlie’s enemies are able to spin the press toward their bidding and how media cuts, pastes and editorializes pictures and words to demonize. Charlie’s explanation of not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, which is based on a solid rationale (he has sworn an oath to uphold the constitution and doesn’t need to make an outward show with a daily loyalty pledge), is re-edited and mis-characterized, then used to create a media frenzy which tarnishes his past accomplishments and presents him as a disloyal American.
Do the “investigative” journalists ask who allowed the woman into the gallery to illegally video Charlie Winship, which might uncover the secret agenda to remove him? The “free” press has been directed by unseen handlers who are beholden to larger global concerns. And Charlie’s attempts to further clarify his explanation on broadcast media is so distorted and slanted that Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would be pleased. The sardonically portrayed media incident is woefully reminiscent of the contorted mash of mainstream news that sometimes passes as information and fact.
Charlie meets his constituents in his mobile office mano a mano (Congressman Mrazek also had a mobile office), to hear their highly personal complaints. The humor and irony in the scene is made greater as Charlie listens to his constituents complaints, though even a child would find some of them outlandish. It is no coincidence that after the media attacks and constituent grousing that Charlie is relieved to journey to a remote island with no cell phones, mobile devices, or other necessities of the digital age. There he will assist in the fight to preserve fishing grounds.
On the island miles out in the Atlantic, there is solitude and incredible natural beauty. It is here that Charlie has a gradual epiphany as he tours the island with Rae Blanchard (Elizabeth Marvel’s portrayal is soulful and real), with whom he discovers he would like to share a new life, if she’ll have him. Even Barnes, initially disgusted with the antics of taciturn islanders while fishing on a lobster boat in a humorous segment, meets someone special and has a shot at something much more profound than what Devereaux offers him. The island of Monhegan, indeed, is a magical, transformative place.
The cinematography, especially of the island captures many of its beauties. The editing of the political scenes is sharp, the timing humorous and dark. What I particularly enjoyed about The Congressman is that it takes another look at uplifting human possibility in an arena where we might least expect it. It is an intriguing examination of hopeful second chances in the character of a type of individual we have come to cynically believe is incapable of ethics, morality, sound thinking, and non-genocidal impulses. Clearly, Charlie Winship is unique. And it is refreshing to watch him reverse the course of his life and launch out in deep waters, never looking back.
Mrazek’s characterization of Charlie Winship reveals an autobiographical touch of a caring individual. If one looks at the accomplishments of Congressman Robert Mrazek we see someone who cared. The Congressman authored the National Film Preservation Act-1987, The Amerasian Homecoming Act-1987, The Manassas Battlefield Protection Act-1988, and the Tongass Timber Reform Act-1990 (variously concerned with preservation of the environment, resources and art, and the salvation of outcast children of servicemen born in Viet Nam). In the case of the Manassas Battlefield Protection Act, he helped preserve historic, blood soaked ground from being paved over by a shopping mall. To pass these acts, he achieved bi-partisan consensus. What?
Altogether, the film is one that will leave an indelible impression, because of its quiet authenticity. It is a throwback to what most individuals in our nation can and do appreciate and have lost the ability to hope for and believe in: second chances, re-awakenings in the soul, politicians who do care and have a “smatch of honor.” Perhaps there is something to hope for after all.