Frontline: Season 26, Episode 14

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (11 Nov. 2008)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary
8.1
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Title: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (11 Nov 2008)

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (11 Nov 2008) on IMDb 8.1/10

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Where was Will Lyman? Seriously Needs a Narrator for Otherwise Fascinating Account
23 November 2008 | by (Oakland, CA) – See all my reviews

This documentary should have been a "10". However, this material, the political rise of Lee Atwater as President George H.W. Bush's chief political consultant, is just too complex to depend exclusively on the ramblings of the many interviewees. The interviewees serve an important purpose, but because they are speaking impromptu without a script, they occasionally don't adequately clarify the main substance of their discourse. And often the finer points are lacking. This documentary desperately needs Will Lyman to fill a gaping void and create a coherent narrative in which the details of Atwater's political ingenuity can be completely understood. As it stands, many of the most interesting episodes were fuzzy at best and incomprehensible at worst.

The subject couldn't be more compelling in the wake of the 2008 presidential election in which political smear tactics which were successful in the 1980's, 1990's, and early 2000's are finally losing their potency. The documentary was aired marking the 20th anniversary of George HW Bush's 1988 presidential bid in which Atwater was at the campaign helm. Atwater is one of the most compelling figures of the late 20th-century political arena. He was the mentor of Karl Rove who continued to use Atwater's techniques for successful republican campaigns in the 1990's and the early 2000's. Atwater created campaign rhetoric that plugged into constituents' ideology that trumped policy considerations in the voting booth. He often portrayed opponents as lacking "religion" and "values" although he himself subscribed to neither. For example, he found that particular US citizens would not vote for candidates whose faith was outside of Christian Protestantism. The irony was that later Atwater would admit that he had never even opened a Bible, let alone understood any of its precepts.

The frustration of the documentary lies in its lack of a narrator. For example, it was not entirely clear how he helped Ronald Reagan's Republican Primary Campaign against Bob Dole. He had done something significant but I came away a bit confused. Later, Atwater becomes part of the Reagan administration under Ed Rollins, but it is never made clear what position he actually holds and what department Rollins heads. In another segment, he undermines Rollins authority by calling on the press to break a story but I was never clear as to the exact nature of what Atwater had done, why he had done it, and the details surrounding the circumstances. The documentary uses Rollins' interview to explain, but he never describes the episode from beginning to end, except to say that he told Atwater he would beat the hell out of him if he ever did something like this again. The episode apparently allows Atwater to rise to heading Bush's 1988 presidential bid.

Overally, a film with great potential with fascinating subject-matter but it left me feeling a little dissatisfied. The lack of a narrator to explain throughly the finer points of Atwater's exact positions and what he did specifically at different times left serious gaps in the discourse. It would be in the best interests of the documentary to simply add Will Lyman and allow him to give us the juicy information we are craving for.


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