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Movie Review

He liked to go negative

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 24, 2008
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Lee Atwater, who played a pretty good guitar, loved the blues and Southern-fried rock. That partly accounts for the title of Stefan Forbes's slick and somewhat hyperventilating documentary, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

More important, Atwater was for some 20 years an increasingly powerful force in Republican politics. He was Ronald Reagan's deputy campaign manager in 1984 and George H.W. Bush's campaign manager in 1988. By the time of his death, in 1991, he was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Atwater's no-prisoners style - the Willie Horton ad, in 1988, was his doing - made him a liberal boogeyman. That's the main thrust of the documentary's title.

Atwater was Karl Rove before there was Karl Rove. Rove was, in fact, a protégé of Atwater's when they were both prominent Young Republicans in the early '70s. Rove describes him in "Boogie Man" as "part myth, part showman, part political mastermind."

The documentary portrays Atwater as pretty much the root of all evil in US politics: the apparatchik as antichrist. It also inserts multiple shots of George W. Bush in Atwater's vicinity and campaigning for his father in '88. "My number one soul mate," we hear Atwater saying of Bush the younger at one point. It sure sounds like puffing the boss's kid. "Boogie Man" sees it rather more portentously: no Atwater, no Dubya.

A master of wedge politics and negative campaigning, Atwater was a brilliant, ruthless, wholly amoral tactician. "I make no bones about who I am, what I am, and what I do," he said. "If you're on the other team, I'm going to try to beat you."

Yet on the evidence of the archival footage we see scattered among many talking heads (some friendly, most not), Atwater's unblinking nerviness made him genuinely compelling: a Huck Finn raised by Snopeses and schooled by Willie Stark. Even if Atwater hadn't had such a bad haircut (and he sure did), he would have stood right out in the blow-dried world of Washington politics.

Instead of attempting a character study, "Boogie Man" returns an indictment. Not only do we hear from Michael Dukakis, which makes sense, we also hear from Kitty. The novelist Ishmael Reed seems to have wandered in from another documentary. Terry McAuliffe, who didn't become chairman of the Democratic National Committee until a decade after Atwater's death, shows up, too, interviewed in the back seat of a limo, no less. If there were a liberal equivalent to Fox News (no, not MSNBC, which is so much milk-fed veal to Rupert Murdoch's steak tartare), "Boogie Man" is the sort of programming it would thrive on.

As it happens, "Boogie Man" appears at the same time as the late Marjorie Williams's book of Washington profiles, "Reputation." Williams's portrait of Atwater is both far more nuanced, and ultimately far more damning, than the documentary. Stacking the deck even against a cardsharp, as Williams knew, is still stacking the deck.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

MOVIE REVIEW

BOOGIE MAN: THE LEE ATWATER STORY Directed by: Stefan Forbes

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 86 minutes

Unrated (occasional obscene language)

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