Portrait of an Ex-Governor, Transformed

Jim McGreevey will eternally be remembered for the moment in 2004 when he shocked New Jersey by declaring, “I am a gay American.” It was the end of his governorship, but serves as the beginning of Fall to Grace, a compelling documentary debuting March 28 on HBO.

The film focuses on the former governor’s search for redemption after his resignation. It opens on what McGreevey calls “act one” of his life. There’s a brief overview of his extramarital relations with a male coworker, which led to his resignation and divorce. But the narrative quickly moves on to the lesser-told story of “act two,” which revolves around the theme of second chances.

These days McGreevey is devoted to his work as a prison minister at the Hudson County Correctional Center, where he segues from joking about awful prison bologna to facilitating a serious talk about individual actions and consequences. He also works at Integrity House, a rehabilitation center that helps former inmates and drug addicts get clean, employed and adjusted. All these changes in his life transpired after his own trauma of a public resignation. He identifies with the people he helps.

“No one should be defined by the nadir of their existence,” says McGreevey. “That shouldn’t determine the entirety of their lives.”

Female prison inmates, whom McGreevey counsels, characterize the McGreevey of today as a “dream seller”—a man who believes in discarded women, and radiates love. He even looks different, sporting a close-shaved salt-and-pepper haircut, casual tweed jacket and laugh lines. This McGreevey seems more frank and relatable than McGreevey the governor, with his canned speeches and stiff waves to the crowd. The only remnant of that old persona is McGreevey’s ability to talk to, and connect with, every passerby on the mean streets of Newark.

But more than McGreevey’s physical or religious transformation (he turned away from his Catholic upbringing and, in hopes of joining the priesthood, entered seminary school as an Episcopalian) the most captivating change is the one in his principles. He offers an unvarnished portrait of his governor self, a man who was consumed by the “need to be acclaimed, need to be adored, need to be knighted.” He was drunk on the lavish life, replete with a stately mansion, police protection, helicopters and other perks of office. (Today he shares a happy—and still stately—home with partner Mark O’Donnell.)

The film explores the moment that McGreevey came to grips with the lies of what he calls his “own myth,” and asked, “What else did I get wrong?” The documentary, selected for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, offers illuminating answers to director Alexandra Pelosi’s questions; answers that are heartwarming at times and heartbreaking at others.

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