Watching Horns and Halos is to invite your lower lip to take a vacation from your upper lip. This stranger-than-fiction tale of a deeply neurotic George W. Bush biographer and the punk-rock publisher who tried to champion his censored book follows its hapless anti-heros in a predictably troublesome direction navigated in an unpredictably eccentric way. In the end, we rubberneck at an astounding crash-and-burn with a toll more personal than professional.
J.H. Hatfield--author of the controversial Bush bio Fortunate Son--asks, "What if someone wrote your biography...would there be horns and halos involved?" Hatfield took it upon himself to polish the horns of potential Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush; now filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley paint a grey-shaded portrait of the mercurial author. Hatfield explains that he was tired of writing cheap, rushed paperback trivia books, TV show guides, and bios of celebrities like Patrick Stewart and Ewan McGregor. He smelled a story in the rising fortunes of Bush, one that might help him graduate from the lower ranks of the publishing world.
Indeed, St. Martin's Press quickly smelled what Hatfield was cooking. Buoyed by a boldly claimed scoop about Bush's purportedly erased cocaine conviction, the publisher promoted Fortunate Son to a hardbound candidate for the bestseller lists. Arguably, the book was little more than another "clip job" recycling the work of others and, worse, apparently fabricating certain sources. On the other hand, Hatfield had succeeded in drawing attention to compounding and very real questions about Bush's credibility (including charges of insider trading and a duplicitous military record).
But Hatfield began to appear more disreputable than his subject when the author's own sensational criminal conviction was outed. Dropped like a hot potato, Fortunate Son was snatched up by a radical young apartment super/punk-rock singer/hole-in-the-wall publisher named Sander Hicks, the then-single-handed driving force of tiny Soft Skull Press. Rushing out an off-set edition of the St. Martin's Press book, Hicks bought himself more trouble and heartache than he could have conceived.
Galinsky and Hawley have captured an engrossing, scary, and ultimately shocking story here, but also an unwieldy one. Too many questions remain unanswered about the various allegations levelled against both Bush and Hatfield, who clearly embellished his book's journalistic merit and dismissed his hair-raising crime as water under the bridge. But as politics have become about the cult of personality, so too the documentary turns its attention to flawed humanity.
Hicks and Hatfield make compelling characters one wants to see succeed in spite of their recklessness; their hearts appear to be in the right place. Hatfield describes himself as "complicated" and "deceitful"; Hicks's unconventional approach to publishing is often heedlessly naive, as in a Book Expo America press conference which drops the jaw of at least one national reporter. Hatfield concludes that writing the book in the first place is a wholly regrettable "nightmare." Bush rode into the sunset (where he now feels a different heat), while Hatfield faced a host of public and personal demons.
In the end, even once-righteous journalists are questioning their own choices in their high-profile coverage of this politically charged David and Goliath tale. Galinsky and Hawley may not be as incisive as they could be, but they do present a balanced portrait of their de facto heroes, horns and all.