The man Democrats loved to hate receives a docu portrait Republicans might chafe at in “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.” Filmmaker Stefan Forbes begins with the correct premise, known by political operatives everywhere, that Atwater developed and mastered the art of the modern political attack campaign, now used everywhere by everyone despite protestations to the contrary. Deeply influential, even to his enemies, Atwater’s career is viewed here with fascination and some sympathy, and the pic is sure to win votes in election season with specialty distribs and public tube mavens.
Atwater arrived the political scene, first as a key organizer for College Republicans and then as aide to late Sen. Strom Thurmond (from his native South Carolina), like a kind of Southern GOP version of Sammy Glick — coming on like a ton of bricks and acting like there was no tomorrow. Friends such as Joe Sligh and long-term acquaintances such as former White House communications director Tucker Eskew marvel at how Atwater learned skills as an aggressive operative as early as high school.
One of Forbes’ participants is vet GOP activist-operative Roger Stone, an Atwater contemporary and a living reminder that Atwater learned certain “dirty tricks” and maneuvers from the Nixon White House, for whom Stone campaigned in 1972. “There’s nothing more vicious than a College Republican fight,” Stone chuckles on camera, recalling how Atwater “learned the hardest of hardball” even before he turned pro.Liberal critics such as journalist Eric Alterman express puzzlement that a self-declared anti-establishment guy like Atwater joined the Republicans, but Forbes makes clear that Atwater’s rebelliousness was directed against a left-wing, not right-wing, establishment. Pic is weaker when trying to psychoanalyze Atwater’s ruthless techniques (spreading falsehoods and blatant exaggerations, “push-polling” to promote unfounded suspicions about opponents), and an aside about a childhood tragedy isn’t enough to explain its subject’s mindset.
After proving his muster as Ronald Reagan’s campaign director in 1980, when he saved the campaign after a loss to Bob Dole in Iowa, Atwater reached the White House as a political adviser. GOP vet Ed Rollins offers some telling personal views on how Atwater betrayed him and moved up the party and White House ladder. Columnist Howard Fineman’s insight is especially pointed: Atwater’s knack for feeding the press phony information indicated a view that politics itself was phony.
That Atwater was somehow able to help maneuver the Reagan White House out of most of the morass of the Iran-Contra scandal (reviewed here in cursory form) and then take charge of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign is a feat in itself. Forbes’ depiction of Bush’s hapless opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a victim of Atwater’s tactics gives the doc a leftish slant. While Atwater’s “revolving door” ad depicting Dukakis as “soft on crime,” and the even more notorious Willie Horton ad, to this day symbolize the heights (or depths) of cynical, “wedge-issue” campaigning with a racist makeup, it’s worth noting that Dukaki’s own blunders were just as key to the Bush-Atwater victory.
Pic’s final section, detailing Atwater’s startling death from brain cancer in 1991, portrays a man who became remorseful on his deathbed. At the end, though, Rollins drops in a telling observation that, even until his death, Atwater may have still been engaged in media spin.
Vid lensing and roster of on-camera friends and experts is faultless, while Forbes’ own editing is a model of sharp pacing.