C-SPAN’s most prominent space cadet may be gone. But a handful of still-spellbound Ohioans — including Rep. Tim Ryan — simply cannot stop talking about larger-than-life former lawmaker James A. Traficant Jr.
Fledgling filmmaker Eric Murphy attempts to deconstruct the unbelievable life of the late Ohio Democrat in his evolving documentary, “Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown.”
The long-running project, which Murphy hatched roughly half a decade ago, aims to shine a light on the two mindboggling chapters of Traficant’s career: His meteoric rise as the mob-baiting sheriff of Youngstown, Ohio, who later beat an FBI-led bribery sting, followed by his arrival on Capitol Hill and subsequent fall from grace due to a fresh set of corruption charges.
Murphy has taken to Kickstarter to raise the capital required to sew up the mostly finished flick (he wants to add music and do some polishing); with over a month to go on his fundraising campaign, Murphy is more than half-way toward reaching the $17,500 goal posted online. One of the updates includes filming the site of the farming accident that ultimately claimed the irascible convict’s life in late September. Murphy did so, pausing to chat with neighbors about the enduring local figure.
“He painted and cleaned brush off his farm,” Murphy said of the fiery orator’s final days. “Maybe he found peace …. like an aging athlete coming to terms with ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’”
An Ohio native, Murphy said he became intrigued with Traficant after hearing stories about the flamboyant pol from Ryan, a one-time Traficant aide.
“I think he has captured one of the most intriguing political stories in the country,” Ryan said of the all-encompassing view of Traficant that Murphy, who worked on Ryan’s inaugural campaign for state Senate, has pieced together from archival sources.
“The news clips are real,” Ryan told HOH about the wealth of footage culled from the local CBS affiliate.
Murphy told HOH he was, at least initially, dismayed about not having been able to broker a proper sit down for a one-on-one with Traficant. “He wanted total control,” Murphy said of Traficant’s desire to steer the messaging in his favor.
Instead, Murphy combed through old tapes crammed into unmarked boxes and shoved into the recesses of the Youngstown library to cobble together a faithful reconstruction of Traficant’s media-enabled stardom. “This is how it happened because we have the footage of it,” he asserted.
In addition to interviewing Ryan, Murphy gets fellow Buckeye stater Ed O’Neill, currently of “Modern Family” fame, to chat about all things Traficant. Murphy first connected with the sitcom funnyman by approaching him with a pitch for a short film based on the work he did for Ryan’s bid for state senator, a labor of love O’Neill stood squarely behind.
Turns out, O’Neill had also been keeping tabs on Traficant for quite some time.
“Ed loves gangster stories more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Murphy said of O’Neill’s affinity for Traficant’s legendary exploits. “He’s as fascinated as anyone.”
According to Murphy, what he’s got in the can has already been submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Should the prescribed cash infusion roll in by late November, Murphy estimates a fully realized cut could be ready for release in early 2015.
Should he come up short, the outlook gets much hazier. “The Kickstarter is extremely important for this movie to come to light,” Murphy stressed.
Although he said he has not yet seen a final cut of the film, Ryan postulated that bringing in a political commentator who would have covered Traficant’s tumultuous tenure in Congress — he floated MSNBC personality Chris Matthews or ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos as political observers well versed in Traficant’s body of work — could really take the movie to another level.
Not that things could get any more surreal than the whisper campaign Ryan told HOH Traficant loyalists continue passing around Youngstown: His sudden death was no accident, but rather the carefully choreographed handiwork of a political enemy.
“He dies on the farm that caused him so much trouble. The irony is unreal,” Ryan said of the flabbergasting conclusion (or is it?) to the Traficant story.
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