In case you’ve completely forgotten your American history and want to know just how much a martyr Huey Long is in Louisiana, check out the opening scenes of Austin filmmakers David Modigliani and Louisiana Kreutz’s documentary “61 bullets.”
There’s a load of school children on tour, being encouraged to put their fingers in the bullet holes left in the walls of the Capitol building from Long’s mythic 1935 assassination. It’s hard not to think of St. Thomas investigating Jesus’ wounds — you expect someone to say, “Our Governor and Our God!”
While a rock solid primer on what made Huey a legend (brilliantly executed populism that pulled Louisiana into the 20th century coupled with a near-dictatorial hold over state government ), “61 Bullets” isn’t just about Long’s life and death but those left behind.
The alleged assassin was a well-respected Baton Rouge physician named Carl Weiss, into whom the title’s 61 bullets were shot by Long’s bodyguards after the doctor (allegedly) shot the governor.
‘The case has never made much sense, especially to the Weiss family. He was a well-liked, highly educated doctor with a young family and everything to live for. Weiss had the thinnest of motives — his father-in-law, Benjamin Pavy, declined to run for a judgeship after a Long-ordered gerrymander reworked the district. Did he really go to the Capitol to kill Long, a suicide mission if there ever was one, or was Long, an almost-continual target of death-threats, killed by bodyguards?
Long, of course, was instantly declared a saint by many, while Weiss was vilified (one headline: “Long’s Slayer Given Catholic Burial –Why?”) While history has deemed Weiss an assassin, the case isn’t even close to closed and (spoiler alert) the truth is likely lost to history. This has always weighed on Weiss’ family, especially Carl Weiss Jr, who was only three months old when his father died.
With a post-Ken Burns feel, the filmmakers assemble photographs, clippings, talking head interviews with historians and forensic specialists, vintage footage to discuss how both families have dealt with this burden, especially the Weiss clan.
The Longs continue to thrive in Louisiana politics. Weiss has lived on Long Island, New York, for decades. But a symposium on Long provides Weiss with a forum to speak about events he has long declined to discuss.
“61 Bullets” blends quiet, thoughtful documentary film-making with moments of historical sweep, contrasting history’s judgement with the everyday lives of those who have to contend with it.