By Jano Tantongco
Coming full circle, former congressman from Huntington Robert Mrazek has dived into the world of filmmaking, directing the aptly named film, “The Congressman,” which debuted April 29.
When the film was screened that evening at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Mrazek greeted patrons at a reception before the screening of the film.
In the film, disgruntled congressman Charlie Winship, played by Treat Williams, makes an escape to a remote island off Maine to get away from troubles on Capitol Hill, media haranguing and public criticism. There, he sees the functioning of a community with world-weary, yet fresh eyes.
In Mrazek’s real-life congressional career, he retreated to Monhegan Island, 14 miles off the coast of Maine to decompress.
“I remember being struck by the contrast about what I was reading about in Washington and the island culture. Members of Congress from both parties refusing to work with one another, a total stalemate to the detriment of our country,” he said.
However, in the microcosm of the island, he witnessed how its residents, despite not always getting along, were able to “work together to survive and make the island function.” This inspired not only his eventual move to the island, but also the plot line for his film. He now lives there six to eight months in the year, spending the rest of his time in Ithaca, New York.
“There are a lot of films today that are very dark, very bleak, very violent. This is a feel good film,” Mrazek said. “I think the film makes you think, but it doesn’t tell you how to think.”
Before migrating to Monhegan, Mrazek spent nearly 50 years in Huntington, appreciating its “small town kind of atmosphere.”
He was a government major at Cornell University, graduating in 1967. Then, after a brief stint in the Navy, he attended London Film School with dreams of becoming a filmmaker.
However, in April 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King prompted Mrazek to carefully reflect on his path. He thought what he was doing was “trivial” compared to the social issues of the day. He added that while in the Navy, he became opposed to the Vietnam War and its toll on human life.
So, he began working as an aide for U.S. Senator Vance Hartke in 1969. Mrazek joked that this started his “40-year detour” from filmmaking.
In 1976 he was elected a Suffolk County legislator, representing Centerport as a Democrat.
There, one of the most pressing issues he stood against was the corruption scandal surrounding the creation of the Southwest Sewer District. Mrazek said the $932 million project was full of intentional overruns.
According to the New York Times, the county’s district attorney filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in 1981 against two county politicians, three contractors and a pipe supplier. One contractor was found guilty on seven counts for involvement in the “extortion, racketeering, and bribery associated with the sewer district,” according to reports in The Long Islander.
“By attacking the project, it engendered a good deal of animosity from many people in my own party who saw it as something very beneficial to them, as opposed to the people,” said Mrazek, adding that he was also receiving death threats at the time.
Mrazek was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, where he penned legislation that established protocols to protect films in their original form.
His favorite director Fred Zinnemann, who directed the Academy-award-winning film “From Here To Eternity,” visited Washington in 1987 to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Congressional Arts Caucus. He stayed with Mrazek for a week.
That week also marked the death of renowned director John Huston, who directed classics like the Maltese Falcon. In their discussions, Zinneman told Mrazek how Huston’s films were among those being “mutilated” by being optically reconfigured to adapt to television or sped up to accommodate more commercials.
“It resonated with me. And, I decided I would try to undertake a law that would stipulate for the first time that film is an art form worthy of protection,” Mrazek said.
He pushed the passage of the National Film Preservation Act, which would prevent significant alterations made to a film without the creator’s permission.
“It was very hard to get that law passed because the studios were opposed to it. They owned the copyright to the films, and they felt they were legally in a position to do whatever they wanted with them—paint the mustache on the Mona Lisa, if you will,” said Mrazek.
It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Additionally, Mrazek was swept up in the House banking scandal of 1992, being one of 22 members who were found to have overdrawn their House checking accounts without penalty from the House bank. Mrazek explained that members of the House had been using such accounts since 1832, drawing against their “constitutionally guaranteed” incomes.
After this, Mrazek decided not to pursue re-election, but he said that’s not why he retired from politics.
“I could have run for re-election for the house and been re-elected. I was worn out from it,” Mrazek said, wishing to pursue his own passions and return to family life. “My children were 11 and 13, and I hadn’t seen very much of them up to that point.”
He began to establish himself as a writer, publishing eight books, mainly historical fiction and nonfiction.
And, in October 2012, he was able to embark on his decades-in-the-making goal of being a filmmaker, by starting to write the screenplay for “The Congressman.” He said he was able to complete it within a few months, since he was so familiar with the territory.
“It’s a lot easier to become a lobbyist than a novelist as a former member of Congress,” he said. “When you become your writer, it’s you, your imagination and a word processor.”
The film was released on April 29 and is available in select theaters.