A.K.A. Tommy Chong

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Mark Hemingway had an excellent review of the new Tommy Chong documentary in the NY Sun last week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available online. So I asked him if I could reprint here. He generously sent me the full, unedited version. Review after the break.

Our old friend Mary Beth Buchanan makes an appearance. I wasn’t aware that she is now the “top federal prosecutor in the country.” Jesus. Says something about the state of the country, doesn’t it?

A.K.A Tommy Chong
78 Minutes

By Mark Hemingway

Over the course of his long and varied career, Tommy Chong, (half of famed comedy duo Cheech and Chong) has been a lot of things. The self-described “doper comedian” has starred in sitcoms and films, he’s a renown stand-up comic, and in his younger days was a nightclub owner and professional musician, briefly playing in a Motown band with a young Jimmy Hendrix.

To that expansive resume we can now add “martyr.”

About halfway through A.K.A. Tommy Chong, the new documentary that chronicles Chong’s nine-month prison stint for selling bongs over the internet, we learn that he was sentenced for his crime on September 11, 2003.

In theory, that date should have no connection to Chong’s alleged “crime” of lending his likeness to his son who sold glass bongs and pipes over the internet. Drug “paraphernalia” or no, all but two states have decided that such products are legal to sell. But thanks to a series of metaphorically unfortunate coincidences laid out in A.K.A. Tommy Chong, the date of Chong’s sentencing is important.

On September 5, 2001, a woman named Mary Beth Buchanan became the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Six days later United Flight 93 crashed in a field in her Justice Department jurisdiction, and not too far from the small Pennsylvania town she grew up in.

Faced with an immediate connection to the horrors of terrorism and its horrifying impact on the community she grew up in, Buchanan hit the ground running as new U.S. Attorney. She went right out and spent two years and $12 million in taxpayer funds on “Operation Pipe Dreams” rounding up 55 people who sell bongs on the internet (Pennsylvania is one of the two states where such products are illegal to sell).

In the midst of this global war on terror, it’s only fitting Tommy Chong would be sentenced on the two year anniversary that day that will live in infamy. We all feel safer knowing he was behind bars for selling a harmless product that’s legal to sell almost anywhere.

To make matters worse, of the 55 people charged by the Justice Department for selling drug paraphernalia, Chong was the only suspect with no prior convictions. Yet somehow he received the longest sentence of any of the people charged. Court documents repeatedly made reference to his movies and well-known marijuana humor. The only explanation for his longer sentence is that the Ms. Buchanan decided to make satire a crime. (It’s also worth noting that then head of the Justice Department John Ashcroft, had a nephew caught growing 60 marijuana plants — a far, far more serious crime than Chong’s — while he was governor of Missouri. Mysteriously, Ashcroft’s nephew didn’t spend a day in jail.)

As if this situation couldn’t get any worse, the film lays out a pretty clear case of entrapment on behalf of the government. Chong only pled to a jail term when the government threatened to go after his wife and son. Oh and thanks in part to her stellar efforts targeting glassblower menace, Ashcroft promoted Buchanan. She’s now the top Federal Prosecutor in the country.

This story of woefully misplaced law enforcement priorities is well-told in A.KA. Tommy Chong. Certainly, public awareness could stand to be goosed regarding the dark side of the war on drugs. Even those wild-eyed radicals at National Review support the legalization of marijuana, in favor of the current zealous prosecution of an unwinnable “war.”

But there are lots of stories that could be told about injustice in the drug war. Thankfully, this documentary tells Tommy Chong’s. Aside from connecting to him through varying degrees of cultural familiarity, Chong is an exceedingly likable guy. Of course he’s funny, but the real revelation comes as Chong drops his “doper” shtick. He comes off as very observant, intelligent and well, sober — a gentle soul who will win over people predisposed to dislike the world’s most famous stoner.

The documentary itself is well-constructed and has commentary from a number of Chong’s Hollywood friends including yes, Cheech, despite the two’s legendary feud. The film also makes good use of clips from Cheech and Chong’s past routines and films, making the movie very entertaining by documentary standards. The film also moves along briskly, and at 78 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

It’s not often that a film both amuses and outrages at the same time, but A.K.A. Tommy Chong strikes that balance nicely. Chong even comes across as repentant about the possibly irresponsible messages of his marijuana comedy decades ago. Still, Chong was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and the film shows him dealing with it honorably and with dignity.

If nothing else, A.K.A. Tommy Chong shows yet again, that law enforcement’s failure to grasp what is what is really important to public safety is as terrifying as any threat the country faces. Thank god the film makes you laugh along way — otherwise the film would merely be depressing rather than a call to arms.

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