Review of McGreevey Documentary “Fall to Grace”

The New York Observer’s Matthew Kassel offers this review of “Fall to Grace,” the new HBO documentary chronicling the fall

The New York Observer’s Matthew Kassel offers this review of “Fall to Grace,” the new HBO documentary chronicling the fall and subsequent rise of former Gov. Jim McGreevey:

By Matthew Kassel

Alexandra Pelosi’s new documentary, Fall to Grace, which airs tonight on HBO, offers a moving and sympathetic portrait of Jim McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey, almost 10 years after his humiliating resignation from public office.

Mr. McGreevey, 55, stepped down as governor after revealing that he had been involved in a gay affair with a former aide; the whole thing was a “train wreck,” he says in the film. But Mr. McGreevey believes in redemption, and so this movie is about a second act. Or acts.

After resigning, Mr. McGreevey went out to a rehabilitation center in Wickenburg, Virginia, to attempt to make sense of his inverted life. He has since found a calling. Mr. McGreevey now counsels women in prison, those who are “rejected, victims of horrible abuse and limited by their past histories,” as he puts it. The women love him; he eats the food they are served in jail; he listens to them; he hugs them; they call him “the dream seller.”

“Being in the closet is a prison of sorts,” Mr. McGreevey tells us, in one of the documentary’s many candid moments, “and for a gay man, there were so many times in my life where I felt filled with shame and guilt and ugliness.”

“I am that woman in jail,” Mr. McGreevey adds. “I’m no different.”

Mr. McGreevey is also training to be an Episcopal priest, having rejected the Catholic church as an institution inhospitable to homosexuality. He has two daughters, one from each of his previous wives, and he lives with his partner, Mark O’Donnell, in a big house in Plainfield, New Jersey. He has German shepherds; there’s a swimming pool and a statue of the Buddha in his backyard; he mows his lawn. It’s not Drumthwacket, of course, nor is it the White House — Mr. McGreevey did have presidential ambitions, after all — but he appears content, even though his hair, which is much grayer than it was in 2004, betrays what he has been through.

In Fall to Grace, Mr. McGreevey walks through Newark’s toughest neighborhoods with Clintonian swagger, and the warmth that meets him is apparent . (“In the hood, I’m good,” he says.)

Early on in the film, Mr. McGreevey says of his former role as governor: “I knew this was an extraordinary time in my life: the beautiful mansion, the lovely beach house, the support of the state police, helicopters, cars, staff. For me, it was the need to be acclaimed, the need to be adored, the need to be knighted.”

“Self-gratification,” Mr. McGreevey says, settling on an idea. “Which ultimately brings self-destruction.”

There is a certain self-gratifying element to Mr. McGreevey’s current aim: He has surrounded himself with people who love and admire him, just as he did as a politician on the campaign trail. (He also consented to have a documentary made about his life.)

But Mr. McGreevey explains that he now has a “different value system.” And what makes him — and this movie — so likable, is that he is willing to laugh about his past, despite that he has abjured politics for a different life.

At the movie’s end one of the women Mr. McGreevey has counseled, Lisa, tells him that he makes her feel as if he didn’t know that she was once a drug addict and a criminal. “You make me feel that you knew me before,” Lisa says, choking up.

Mr. McGreevey considers this comment for a moment. “I’m gay and a resigned governor,” he replies, one-upping her with a smile.

“Alright,” Lisa says, lightening up. “You win.” Review of McGreevey Documentary “Fall to Grace”