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Review: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008)

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008)

Directed by: Stefan Forbes

Premise: A biographical documentary of Republican political operative Lee Atwater. 

What Works: Lee Atwater is not a figure widely known among non-political junkies but he is one of the figures that shaped contemporary politics, more so than many people who have actually held elected office. Atwater rose to prominence working for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and later worked for the Reagan Administration.  He achieved his highest distinction while the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush in which he overcame significant challenges to guide the presidential campaign to victory and subsequently became the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Boogie Man follows Atwater’s biography from his roots in the College Republicans to the heights of power in Washington D.C. and the filmmakers pay most of their attention to the methods he employed to win campaigns. This film tells a classic narrative of power and ambition gone mad and Atwater’s story is a compelling one. As the filmmakers tell it, Atwater was the product of post-reconstructionist Southern politics and his social acumen and ruthless desire to win made him a powerful force. The story of Atwater’s rise to power is briskly and entertainingly told and the narrative is well edited with insightful commentary and relevant news footage. But what further distinguishes this picture is how the filmmakers successfully use Atwater’s biography to not only tell his story but also to construct a portrait of where politics and political campaigns, especially within the Republican Party, have gone in the last two generations. More than anything, Boogie Man is about the power of images and the way those images can be used to direct and misdirect the attention of both reporters and the electorate. The primary example, explored at length in Boogie Man, is the now infamous Willy Horton revolving door ad used in the 1988 presidential campaign. This campaign strategy, which combined dissemination of disingenuous or simply false statements with appeals to base racial fears in the electorate, was enormously successful and was key to George H.W. Bush’s presidential win but these techniques also poisoned the public discourse. Boogie Man explores the impacts of those techniques and the filmmakers put a human face on the impact of this kind of campaigning on politicians, the public, and the quality of political discussion. This kind of biographical documentary requires filmmakers to stick to the facts; they cannot change or embellish facts to suit theatrical goals. Fortunately for the filmmakers of Boogie Man the ending of Atwater’s life is a deeply ironic one, the kind that Hollywood screenwriters would love to write, and it is a satisfying and fittingly ambiguous conclusion for the picture.

What Doesn’t: Boogie Man tells its story through an array of voices including Republican and Democratic politicos as well as credible journalists, but there are some notable omissions. Most noticeably, no one from the Bush family appears in an interview. Also noticeably missing from the film’s scope is a meaningful exploration of Atwater’s childhood. The film briefly covers the tragic death of his younger brother but little else is mentioned. Boogie Man is primarily focused on Atwater’s political career and so this may have been deemed extraneous by the filmmakers. However, Atwater’s public image was tied very much to his salt of the earth manners and his love of blues music and it would have been helpful for the film to explore the roots of his musicianship and how that may have linked to his later activities but all that is forgone in favor of the political narrative.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes, image gallery, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Boogie Man is a very tight and well-made documentary. It is a little too brief in some ways but by keeping it as focused as it is, the filmmakers create a portrait of power and hubris that is both compelling and relevant.

Episode: #413 (November 4, 2012)