Friday, October 24, 2008

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

"Boogie Man" is a story of political karma, two things that rarely, if ever work in accordance with one another. Lee Atwater was not quite the father, but perhaps the biggest cultivator of modern lie-into-the-camera politics until he died at the age of forty from a brain tumor. He honed and orchstrated brutal, mostly false, sometimes bigoted attack ads, and essentially created the current system in which a political candidate presents a uniquely flat personality by always staying on message, no matter if it is true, false, or if the question even pertains to the answer. Sound familiar?

Atwater began his political career as an intern for Senator Strom Thurmond, and Thurmond's unabashed bigotry in the face of his own central hypocrisy becomes the primary theme in "Boogie Man." Although the film is moderately manipulative, without much craft and occasionally flirts with boredom, it still remains an interesting political portrait of a man who rose quickly, fell quicker, and in a final note of ironic contradiction was described at his funeral as "Machiavellian ... in the very best sense of that term."

The story itself is a well-timed parable, considering the nastiness awash on the current presidential race, and the film is less out to make an argument about Atwater's moral blurriness than it is, almost by default, a blunt description of the man's career cobbled together from still photographs, video archive and talking heads of friends, foes, and journalists. With a bit more tact, this could be the film's greatest strength, but in a strange way filmmaker Stefan Forbes seems to lack a thesis. There is apparently not enough archival footage to set the narrative entirely in a kind of recycled cinema verite, nor is there enough of a cohesion between the footage that is available and the interviews given to avoid the manipulative juxtaposition of comments and clips to plod the narrative along.

Rather than letting the story just tell itself, Mr. Forbes tries to add emotional emphasis to many of the video clips by providing slow motion and looming music, which makes it seem more like a bad reinactment on a docu-drama than a probing political documentary. The slow pans over still images of Atwater's piercing eyes (one interviewee describes them as that of a murderer) are somewhere in between a Ken Burns film and a Power Point slideshow. I did not come away from the film with feelings of anger or sympathy, or even some new cache of factual, informational tidbits. I was left with the peculiar feeling of "OK. That happened. Now what?" Such an ambivalent response is strange in opposition to such a divisive figure as Atwater.

The trick of the film, and its a good one, is that as you get to know this horrible, lying, political cut-throat -- you kind of start to like him. A lot of the time he's just a goofy white guy who likes to play the blues and sing and chomp it up with some reporters. He has an obsessive drive for power, yes, but it is arguable that the drive isn't really grounded in a specific political ideology. In an interview, Atwater says that he looked at the people who were in charge in South Carolina and said, "If these guys are Democrats then I'm a Republican." Another interviewee says it would have been just as easy for him to do what he was doing as a Democrat. It is odd and scary to think that the man who was integral to the creation of the neo-conservative candidate didn't really have all that much invested in the ideas themselves, but as a result still left us with the detritus.

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