Influential Republican operative and all-around evil genius Lee Atwater was a man of contradictions: In 1990, he released an album of classic R&B; covers called Red Hot & Blue with help from Isaac Hayes, B.B, King, and Billy Preston, yet his deep love of African-American culture and music didn't keep him from making scowling black rapist/murderer Willie Horton a household name, cannily exploiting racism while running George H.W. Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign.
Stefan Forbes' conventional but absorbing documentary Boogie Man chronicles Atwater's meteoric rise from wisecracking Southern good ol' boy to top political consultant. Atwater emerges as a complex figure, a backstabbing Iago who plotted furtively against mentor Ed Rollins and taught the dark art of manipulating public opinion to protégé Karl Rove. At the height of his personal and professional success, Atwater was stricken with a fatal brain tumor that was treated with steroids, which in turn caused his face to blow up to such a grotesque degree that he became a creepy caricature of himself.
For Atwater, politics was a gladiatorial blood sport in which only the end results mattered. Yet he was such an irascible scamp and strategic mastermind that even his bitter enemies betray a certain grudging admiration for him. Boogie Man doesn't delve too deep into its subject's private life, beyond some cheap psychology positing his brother's horrible early death as the root of his winner-takes-all philosophy. But then, Atwater's work was his life. Politicking and spin wasn't something he did, it was his identity. An interview subject in Boogie Man suggests that Atwater's deathbed repentance was basically more spin: Atwater claimed that reading the Bible gave him lasting peace, yet that Bible was found still encased in shrink-wrap following his death. Atwater's ghoulishly bloated features in his final days morbidly call to mind a Twilight Zone episode where a dying old man gives his obnoxious, ungrateful family creepy permanent masks that render them as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside.