an intense character study first, and political commentary second

James Plath's picture

With every story, a reader or viewer usually identifies with one character. In the case of "Horns and Halos," the story about the suppressed biography of George W. Bush, "Fortunate Son," I identified with the small press publisher who tried to publish the book after St. Martin's withdrew it three days after it hit the bookstores--and allegedly burned all copies.

You see, in a previous lifetime I was a small press publisher myself. I published a total of one book, and found the publishing business to be as cutthroat as anyone could imagine and as closed a fraternity as the Friar's Club. I also had one of my own books published with a small press publisher and watched in futility as a major magazine went from doing a feature on my Hemingway book to not even reviewing it . . . because another Hemingway title from a major publisher who advertised in the magazine flexed their muscle. So I know what Sander Hicks, a custodian by day and a one-man publishing house by night, went through. Sort of. You have a bond between writer and small press publisher that just doesn't exist at the major publishing house level, and I will never forget the relationship I forged with my single author. The difference is, I published a poet's most recent collection. Sander Hicks published J.H. Hatfield's biography of Bush that caused a stir because of allegations of cocaine use, a 1972 drug arrest, and Bush family bail-outs. I and my author lived to tell about our experience. But that wasn't the case with the Hicks-Hatfield partnership. Only one of them survived the stress and chain of disasters that befell them when they went up against the Bush family and the world of corporations and lawyers.

"Horns and Halos" tells the story of Hicks' and Hatfields's relationship and their pathetic attempts to raise the awareness of a public that has become dismissive regarding any negative stories about their President. Though this documentary is shot in classic pan-and-scan single camera fashion, with straight scenes and no voiceover, it's compelling because of the story itself, but also because of the déjà vu factor. What they were fighting then, as well as their accusations and all that they had to say about patterns of behavior by the President long before he became president, has an eerie "told you so" effect. And it resonates even moreso because of current scandals in media reporting, the latest of which has been Dan Rather's unfortunate rush to air a story based on what turned out to be a planted and forged document. Well, the same thing happened to Hicks and Hatfield, except that the informant was, according to Hatfield, none other than Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove.

Aside from the sad end to one of this dynamic duo's lives, that's the most nagging question to emerge from this film that won Best Documentary at the 2002 New York Underground Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Melbourne Underground Film Festival, and again at the 2003 Big Sky Documentary Festival. Why, after three years of hell protecting his sources for the alleged cocaine use, would Hatfield tell his publisher and have his publisher announce at the June 1, 2001 BookExpo America in Chicago that his sources were Bush advisors Karl Rove and Clay Johnson? After all, this duo had already been through the wringer, especially Hatfield. His book was initially pulled when it was revealed that Hatfield was an ex-con who had served five years for conspiracy to commit murder. Discredited reporters mean dismissed stories, and the damaging "afterword" allegations cost Hatfield dearly. His foreword also cost his new publisher, who was sued for libel when Hatfield, trying to explain and defend his past, implicated someone else. The press was in danger of going under. So why name the powerful Rove well after Bush took office unless Rove actually gave him the information? And why would a Bush team player leak cocaine use information to a biographer, not in time for the information to be included in the already-completed book, but in time for it to be added at the end?

"I've been victimized by the President," Hatfield says, citing the many books written and published about the Clintons during their White House years that were unauthorized and probably not even true. "But write a book about Bush?" he trails off.

Whether you believe him or not, the story that filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky tell is compelling because of the personalities involved, their passion for getting this story out, the stakes involved, and the underlying questions that are raised during this David vs. Goliath mismatch. Mostly, the cameras are trained on Hicks as he goes about his custodial duties and then retreats to the basement of his building into the makeshift office of Soft Skull Press, where we see former publishing exec Jim Fitzgerald volunteering his services out of anger and indignation--hating that the book was suppressed in the first place, and hating Bush. He found a soulmate in Hicks, who says, incredulous, "People like Bush can buy their way out of trouble and buy the presidency." But the camera also follows Hatfield and the pair together as they try to bring the book to print again and promote it. In this respect, it's them vs. the industry, trying to peddle a hot potato that gets hotter by the minute. Occasionally, Hicks will hold up a photo or document and talk about it. Like Michael Moore, he obtained an early copy of Bush's National Guard transcripts WITH censored sections. But his copy is different from Moore's, and he points out how Bush had claimed he volunteered for overseas duty . . . but Hicks points to spots in the transcript that betray otherwise. Sometimes the camera is voyeuristic, other times stagey--as when the filmmakers follow Hicks on the New York subway and he stares into the camera and mugs for it, flashing the thumbs up. But the focus on character never waivers, and the story of these men's lives--how they came together, struggled together, and ultimately experienced tragedy because of their fight to print "the truth"--is powerful and riveting.

"Horns and Halos"--which takes its title from Hatfield's belief that a biographer should show both positives and any negatives about a subject--doesn't focus on Bush and doesn't raise the hundreds of questions that "Fahrenheit 9/11" does. It's an intense character study first, and political commentary second. But by training the camera on these men and enabling us to see Bush in their rear-view mirrors, the film manages to evoke a series of "what ifs" that won't go away.

For a hand-held camera the quality is superb, and the film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen from 35mm color film elements, enhanced for 16x9 televisions--though it will come as no surprise that the film clips of protests and Bush on camera and stock footage is grainy and slightly blurred in spots. But such is the nature of vintage media footage. There's a scene at a club of Sander Hicks and White Collar Crime performing under reddish-orange lighting that's more ethereal than real, and shots of Hicks in the basement sweeping where the low-light produces graininess, but moments like that are few.

The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and except for the commentary track the sound is decent. But the commentary? I've never heard such a thing. Hawley's voice is channeled through the front center speaker, but co-director and producer Galinsky's voice comes out of the right main speaker, sounding as if he's got three Secret Service men holding their hands over his mouth as he tries to speak. It was so annoyingly muffled and bizarre that I couldn't make it through the entire commentary.

There are SCADS of extras in this two-disc release. Apart from the commentary, which is pretty standard and doesn't have the emotion you'd expect it to, given the circumstances, there are 11 short deleted scenes, two feature interviews with Hatfield, an interview with Hicks, a brief clip of the filmmaker's coverage of an anti-Bush protest, of that infamous Nader super rally in New York where Michael Moore actually said "A vote for Nader isn't a vote for Bush; a vote for Gore is a vote for Bush," and of inauguration day with a sharply divided crowd (Hicks tells how he saw a girl dragged 50 feet by undercover cops before the crowd "unarrested" her). All of these are wonderful historical documents, augmented by four promotional interviews the filmmakers did and White Collar Crime singing "God is Kick Ass" and "Hi Mom."

Bottom Line:
It's going to take many years for historians to sort out all that has happened during the George W. Bush administration. Right now it's all a jumble, but records such as this will prove invaluable for future generations, who one day will have little trouble seeing whether Bush and members of his administration had mostly horns, or halos.


Film Value