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President H. W. Bush, center left, in 1989 with Lee Atwater, center right (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Directed by
Stefan Forbes
Produced by
Forbes & Noland Walker
Released by
InterPositive Media
USA. 86 min. Not Rated
Ed Rollins, Michael Dukakis, Tucker Eskew, Howard Fineman, Mary Matalin & Sam Donaldson

Lee Atwater has been a towering specter over American politics during the last three decades—a figure simultaneously legendary and largely unknown, exactly the way he had always wanted. Director Stefan Forbes delves into the life of Atwater from a rising star in College Republicans—working on the campaign of his future protégé Karl Rove—to becoming the mastermind behind the George H. W. Bush presidency. He died in 1991 of brain cancer.

Atwater was the pioneer in negative politicking, the man behind the modern Republican Party, a confidante of the Bush family, and reviled by Democrats and Republicans who stood in his way. Through interviews with friends and foes, Forbes creates a portrait of Atwater’s life that is simultaneously humanizing and demonizing. Likening Atwater’s rise and fall to a Greek tragedy, Forbes highlights the contradictions of Atwater’s life and politics at large, the ways in which Atwater would play the race card against his foes, like the airing of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton commercial, though he was a blues-loving guitar player in an otherwise all African-American group.

The film is largely a straightforward documentary, with decent archival footage and a lot of talking heads. But the debate of Atwater’s legacy is still festering at the heart of American politics, and the great interviews from the likes Michael Dukakis—whose career was ruined largely due to Atwater—Sam Donaldson, and Atwater protégé Tucker Eskew make the film a fascinating dissertation. Despite its often glacial pace, it reveals a poignant look in the life of one of America’s towering behind-the-scenes puppet masters. The film is a thoroughly engaging study, and in a year that is rife with political documentaries, Boogie Man stands out as a film to see. Dustin Nelson
September 26, 2008



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