Filmed on Monhegan in late 2013, part-time islander Robert Mrazek’s new movie “The Congressman” first opened in late April of this year in Washington, D.C. On May 6, it hit the big screen in nearby Portland. By Friday, May 20, when it opens at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, the Maine-made movie will have been viewed by audiences across the United States, including in Los Angeles and New York City.
“We decided to release it this spring,” said the former congressman from New York in a recent telephone interview from Ithaca, N.Y., where he resides for approximately six months out of the year. “We felt it was more timely and topical to release it during this election campaign.”
“The Congressman” — which was filmed on Monhegan Island, and in Augusta and Rockland — tells the thought-provoking story of a Maine congressman named Charlie Winship who “has had a bad day,” as imdb.com put it, in what might be called an understatement.
Winship’s “bad day” — consisting in part of being caught on camera refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and punching a fellow House member — soon blows up into a prolonged period of unpleasantness when Winship finds himself faced with growing media and public criticism for his actions.
Better days arrive for the congressman — played by Golden Globe- and Emmy award-nominated actor Treat Williams — after he heads for a scenic island off the Maine coast to deal with the locals’ conflict over lobster-fishing grounds, and finds peace and a healthier perspective on life in the process.
“I always wanted to be a filmmaker,” said the 70-year-old Mrazek, who has had a home on Monhegan Island since 1984 and lives on the island six months a year.
“In January 1968 I was attending The London Film School,” he said. “In April 1968 Martin Luther King (Jr.) was murdered. In June 1968 Robert Kennedy was murdered.” As a result, Mrazek quit film school and returned to the U.S. to pursue a career in politics.
“I just felt that what I was doing over there [in England] was trivial,” he said. “So I took a 30-year detour into politics.”
He spent 10 of those years as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of New York’s 3rd congressional district, during which time he was instrumental in the 1988 passage of the bipartisan Amerasian Homecoming Act, which gave preferential immigration status to Vietnamese children born of American fathers.
Mrazek, who has five novels and three nonfiction books to his credit, wrote the screenplay for “The Congressman” on Monhegan Island in the winter of 2012. He said he sent it to widely known casting director and producer Fred Roos, whose film credits include “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Lost in Translation.”
“He really liked it very much,” Mrazek said of Roos, “and he suggested I direct it myself.” Mrazek co-directed “The Congressman” with Jared Martin. Mrazek said Roos helped him obtain the money to make the movie.
“The Congressman” is a visually appealing film and its cast is stellar. In addition to Williams, the movie features Elizabeth Marvel as librarian Rae Blanchard; Ryan Merriman as Winship’s chief of staff, Jared Barnes; Kim Blacklock as lobsterwoman Matty Pierce; and George Hamilton as the conniving lobbyist Laird Devereaux. Chris Conroy is notable for his subtle, nuanced portrayal of artist and lobsterman Ben, based on real-life Monhegan artist and sternman Ted Tihansky.
“Treat Williams and George Hamilton were so well-prepared,” said Mrazek. “It allows you to sit back [as a director] and marvel at their dexterity.”
Mrazek said that it was important that the film have “strong independent woman” characters in the form of Rae Blanchard and Matty Pierce, who is based on Monhegan lobsterwoman Zoe Zanidakis, “one of the best lobstermen or women around,” said Mrazek. In general, he sought to portray “strong, self-reliant Mainers, both men and women,” he said.
The ending of “The Congressman,” when Winship speaks before a town meeting on Catatonk, the film’s alias for Monhegan, “sums everything up,” Mrazek said, in terms of the message he was trying to get across to viewers.
“Charlie’s speech at the town meeting really sums up for me what it really means to be an American. It goes beyond patriotic symbolism. It makes you think rather than tell you how to think,” he said of a speech focused on freedom of speech – and the simultaneous freedom to not speak, as the case may be.
“Individual freedom is prized above all else [by American], and that freedom is increasingly in danger,” Mrazek said, referring to the current political climate.
Mrazek added that he was inspired by Italian-American film director, producer, and writer Frank Capra, of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame, “who said, ‘I make message pictures, but before I deliver the message I like to make sure it’s wrapped in an entertaining story.’
“I like to think that’s what we have done,” he said. “There are a lot of bleak stories out there. Ours is a feel-good movie. I wish there were more of them.”
“The Congressman” will open at the Lincoln Theater, 2 Theater St., Damariscotta, on Friday, May 20, with showings at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. The film will also play at the theater at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, May 25 and 26. Go to lcct.org for more information.
Learn more about the film at thecongressmanmovie.com.