By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This Friday, filmmakers Mark Birnbaum of Dallas and Jim Schermbeck of Lubbock begin a sojourn they did not believe possible three years ago--or last summer, for that matter. This very week, their movie will open in Dallas and Houston, with screenings to follow this month and next in New York, Denver and Portland, among more than a dozen others. Then, on May 24, it will be available for purchase on DVD, either in your local video retailer or on the Web site of agit-prop star Robert Greenwald, the maker of movies about Fox News Channel, Wal-Mart and the run-up to the Iraq War. It was only nine months ago that Birnbaum and Schermbeck, makers of acclaimed docs that have been screened in film festivals and on PBS, believed theirs would be a self-produced film that would sit on their shelves, gather dust and disappear into their vaults--a mighta-been that wasn't--because it simply had no ending.
Then, last September, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted by an Austin grand jury, accused of illegally using $200,000 in corporate-donated dough to help Republicans take the Texas House in 2003, leading to the redistricting of the state and the loss of five Democratic seats. The Sugar Land Republican's bad news, which got worse with the sudden and stunning April announcement of his departure from Congress effective in June, became the directors' best news. Their movie about Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation into the doings of the man called The Hammer, and about the corporate takeover of Washington politics, became a hot commodity.
What no one dared touch a year ago--this doc-noir in which Earle insists that corporations' political donations are "as insidious as terrorism"--no one can leave alone today. The Big Buy: Tom DeLay's Stolen Congresshas become a smoking gun for both the left, which insists it offers the ultimate proof of corruption in the Congress, and the right, which has used The Big Buyto raise money for DeLay's defense fund. Not since Fahrenheit 9/11has a movie been painted in so many shades of red and blue.
"You bring into the theater whatever baggage you carry, and you see it through that prism," Schermbeck says. "If you have a strong feeling about Tom DeLay, and most people do, it will hammer home your point of view."
"The word 'hammer' there was used advisedly," Birnbaum says, with no hint of a chuckle at all.
On March 7, when The New York Times wrote the first of three pieces (thus far) about The Big Buy, Schermbeck and Greenwald even predicted it would be used as a fund-raising tool for DeLay. That very thing happened on March 31, when he went trolling for cash on his Web site by declaring that his Democrat opponent Nick Lampson's "liberal Hollywood buddies" had given him a "welcome" gift by releasing The Big Buy, which he claimed was about nothing more than "Earle's partisan witch-hunt." Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, DeLay claimed, the movie "is a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of an election." Within a few weeks, after winning the GOP primary for a 12th term, DeLay announced he was leaving Congress.
Because of several developments, DeLay's indictment and resignation chief among them, The Big Buynow barely resembles the early version screened last August at the Dallas Video Festival, when the Dallas Observerfirst wrote about the movie. Last summer, it played like a film about buried treasure in which the treasure remained well out of sight. They began the movie at the beginning of 2003, as Earle was beginning to investigate how DeLay and his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (or TRMPAC), might have used corporate donations to finance the redrawing of the state's legislative districts.
"He was the most powerful Texas politician, other than George Bush, in D.C., and that was always our hook," Schermbeck says. "This was about this specific case study in DeLayism, this particular scandal, and it's still not the definitive Tom DeLay movie. That's going to be three years from now, when every facet of his empire will be examined. That's not what this film is about. It's a case study in how he works and how he applied his power to the system."
Or, as Birnbaum puts it, the movie is nothing less than "a crime story," and crime stories need their heroes. At least, that is how Earle comes off--as a crusader for truth, justice and the Texas way of settin' things straight. To that end, he agreed to let the filmmakers interview him on several occasions, because Earle's the True Believer who insists he wants to spread the gospel of integrity--or, as he says in the movie, "The root of evil of the corporate and large-moneyed interest domination of politics is money...This is in the Bible."
Those words would come back to haunt the filmmakers and Earle: Last October, attorneys for James Ellis, one of three DeLay aides indicted in September 2004 by an Austin grand jury, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, claiming "outrageous government conduct," in part because of Earle's zealousness and transparency with Birnbaum and Schermbeck. Ellis' attorneys also want some 100 hours of unused video shot by the two--and they're more than happy to turn it over, should it come to that.