A Fallen Star Is Born

Tom DeLay's scandals are a gold mine for two Texas filmmakers

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 at 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 the House 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 about The Big Buy(thus far), 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. 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 (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's 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's attorneys also want some 100 hours' worth of unused video shot by the two -- and they're more than happy to turn it over, should it come to that.

After DeLay's indictment came plenty of press and film-fest offers and distribution deals; there was even talk of getting The Big Buyinto Sundance, which would have delayed its opening date. As it is, the movie will not screen in Austin before DeLay goes to trial in the near, or distant, future -- if he ever stands trial at all. The filmmakers worry it will taint the potential jury pool; Earle likely shares their fears, though he will not comment on the movie till after any and all legal proceedings are complete.

"When I saw their film, my eyes were opened up as to how it happened and what happened," says Greenwald, whose Brave New Films is distributing the movie in theaters, on its Web site and through so-called house parties. "And I was able to understand the larger implications, which is how corporations get in and buy politicians, DeLay today and someone else tomorrow." The Big Buyis the first movie he's distributing he did not direct; he likes to call it the "gift" he didn't know he was looking for when he picked it up last December.

Whatever becomes of DeLay, the movie will chase him in the near future --through courthouses, through the media, through anything he does till he's either vindicated or convicted or merely forgotten.

"Whatever happens now, the guy will never get back to the position of power that he was in," Schermbeck says. "That fall is complete, regardless of how the trial comes out, and you can kind of see that, even way back in October when he got indicted. You can kind of see where this was headed, and we knew we had to talk more than just about DeLay. We had to talk about the culture that he created on Capitol Hill and that whole kind of system of his..."

"The house that Tom built," says Birnbaum.

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