Rich Heldenfels

It seems that everyone who crossed paths with James Traficant came away with a story to tell. Those stories adorn Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown, a documentary getting its world premiere at 6:20 p.m. Saturday at the Akron-Summit County Main Library.

Part of the Cleveland International Film Festival — where it will also be shown Sunday and Monday in Cleveland’s Tower City Cinema — Traficant presents in great detail the story of the former Mahoning County sheriff and U.S. congressman who was as well known for his hair and his proclaiming “beam me up” as he was for his political acumen.

While his many courtroom battles and the public record argued he was corrupt and cynical, until his death in 2014 he was also known for being at one with his Youngstown area constituents. He put on no airs with his wardrobe and raised his fist to anyone who acted better than the people who kept electing him.

A community battered by economic decline saw in Traficant a battler. As the steel industry was collapsing and fury was widespread, then-sheriff Traficant won people’s admiration when he refused to serve foreclosure notices on the families of jobless, suddenly impoverished factory workers.

At least one commentator in the film wonders if Traficant’s anger-fueled populism was a prototype for the tea party. It certainly resonated around Youngstown. But Traficant, especially as time went on, acted more like a party of one.

What might have been

Any portrait of Traficant is also, then, one of the Mahoning Valley. So it is in the documentary, directed by Eric Murphy, 39, a Warren native and Youngstown State graduate. As triumphant as Traficant’s life was at times, the film also wonders what might have been if he had been a little less flamboyant, a little more willing to take a back seat to other people in order to get more things done.

But that would not have been Traficant. A more circumspect man might not have beaten corruption charges — which included tape recordings of him talking money with mobsters, and a signed confession — by claiming he was actually doing his own criminal investigation. A milder-mannered sort might not have been so memorable and admired that people like Murphy’s grandparents would talk almost entirely about Jesus Christ, JFK and Jimbo.

People are still talking in the documentary. There’s Ed O’Neill, the Modern Family actor and favorite son of Youngstown, who grins as he talks about Traficant and the region’s colorful history. Boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Tim Ryan, a former aide to Traficant who succeeded him in Congress. Former Youngstown Mayor Pat Ungaro. Youngstown Vindicator writer Bertram de Souza. Former Judge Edward Cox. Jim Tressel, now president of Youngstown State University and the football coach there during much of the Traficant era.

And still more people besides. Everyone has a story.

Archival footage

There is also plenty of archival footage: TV news reports in abundance. Very private about his personal life, Traficant was not one to shy away from a camera when he thought it useful — and he almost always did. His nearly 18 years in the House (from 1984 until he was expelled in 2002) included hundreds of appearances on C-SPAN.

Murphy, who has worked often as a producer for History Channel programs, thinks his urge to do the Traficant film began with those long-ago conversations with his grandparents. He was fascinated; as a carrier for the Warren Tribune, he says he would break open his bundle of papers and look first to see if Traficant was on the front page. “He was a folk hero,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s interest intensified when he volunteered on Ryan’s first campaign, for the Ohio Senate, in 1999-2000. There were constant stories about Traficant, who was still a major figure in Youngstown politics at the time. Later, after moving west, Murphy would make a short film, Steel Valley, inspired by that Ryan campaign — and he enlisted O’Neill to play a Traficant-like politician in the movie. (That relationship would later prove crucial to Traficant, as O’Neill gave the film a boost, made suggestions about the production and sat down for lunch with high-end donors to the film’s Kickstarter campaign.)

In 2009, as Traficant ended a seven-year prison stretch for corruption, Murphy decided it was time to do the documentary.

No help from Traficant

Working with producer Jeff Alberini in Youngstown, Murphy began collecting material — although he could never get Traficant himself to sit down before his death last September from a tractor accident on his family farm. “I tried many, many, many, many times. He just wanted to have control over everything, and you can’t do that. …

“I tried to make an unbiased portrait of someone and remove the opinions of the director,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want to make a Michael Moore movie where you just pick a side and argue it to death. … That just wasn’t compelling to me. But I don’t know that Jim could trust that I wasn’t making an anti-Jim movie, or a more clear-eyed assessment of the story.”

So he gathered string: by his count, some 30 on-camera interviews and “off-camera, background stuff with hundreds of people.” With so much of Traficant’s personal life kept private, the documentary concentrated on the public man and the events that marked his life. It went from his approach to playing quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, where he set the tone for a life of maverick actions, through his rise in Mahoning politics, his success in bringing some funds to the region and his failure to do even more, his eventual downfall and the way he was seen both at home (where he racked up huge election wins) and nationally (where he was too often seen as a joke).

Fitting it all in was difficult. Murphy said the first cut of Traficant was five hours. It is now a more manageable 90 minutes, although Murphy acknowledges that some things, especially some political nuances, “had to be shaven out” to keep the film from getting too dense. But Murphy is still thinking about tweaks, possibly after the local showings.

Will those ever expand to the Youngstown area?

“We have some talks with distributors lined up,” he said. “We’ll see how that goes, and what kind of screenings we can do. We’re definitely going to do a premiere back in Youngstown and I’d like to do a regional release at some point … probably not for a little while.”

And what, in the end, did Murphy conclude about Traficant after all these years of looking at him?

“I think the film says it,” Murphy said. “I think he came to represent the region during a very tumultuous time. He was the emotional voice box for everybody in Youngstown. … I think someone says it in the film, he represents everything good and everything bad about that old Youngstown. … He’s like the mills. He’s the blast furnace in the distance.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.