Go Kart Films // 2002 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 14th, 2004
"There's not a day goes by that I don't regret this book." -- author James Hatfield on his biography of George W. Bush, Fortunate Son
It's a tough call deciding whom to thank for the recent onslaught of politically-themed documentaries: filmmaker Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrated that such films could do loads of box office and draw even more loads of press, or George W. Bush, whose presidency has inspired such a passionate response from filmmakers and artists. Either way, these past several months have seen a surplus of political documentaries, designed to influence public opinion and express potentially unpopular ideas that a gun-shy media has shied away from. Horns and Halos, the newest documentary from filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, is being marketed as yet another "G.W. exposé" -- at least, that's the impression one would get by looking at the disc's jacket. It isn't, though; rather, it's a film about journalism and the bond formed between two unique individuals.
James Hatfield, an author who had been previously responsible for a couple of supermarket-grade quickie biographies about celebrities (Patrick Stewart, for one), may simply have been out of his depth when he decided to take on the "untold story" of Texas Governor George Walker Bush during the election race of 1999-2000. The finished book, Fortunate Son, made allegations of alcoholism and drug abuse in Bush's past (this is where the "cocaine use" stories began), quickly drawing a great deal of attention from both the media and the would-be President's camp. Before you knew it, the book's publisher, St. Martin's Press, quickly recalled the book and announced that they had no future plans to republish it. Fortunate Son was squashed.
That's the story as Horns and Halos begins, and it looks as though that's the subject the documentary will examine. Problem is, there's not really a story there -- mostly the angry conspiracy theories of a seemingly wronged Hatfield. And while there's not necessarily any concrete evidence to substantiate Hatfield's claims that the Bush people killed his book, it's not impossible to conceive that some of his ideas have merit. Certainly, the Bush camp has contributed to the Culture of Fear we find in the modern United States -- which may have prompted St. Martin's to drop Fortunate Son to avoid a political attack -- but they were not specifically responsible for the book's demise. Hatfield was left frustrated and confused, with no one to dig him out and no one to accept the blame.
Then, something amazing happens. Sander Hicks, a young man with an upstart publishing company (being run out of the basement of the building of which he was the superintendent) called Soft Skull, decides to republish Fortunate Son. That's the story of Horns and Halos. The relationship and alliance formed by Hicks and Hatfield takes center stage as the two men struggle to get Fortunate Son into the hands of the public, both claiming to believe that doing so will have a massive impact on the Bush White House. Things are looking up, until some dark secrets from Hatfield's past begin to surface and are made public. His credibility is attacked, as is his journalistic integrity in the writing of Fortunate Son. Suddenly, what was a grassroots effort to publish a controversial book becomes an all-out fight for survival.
Horns and Halos doesn't exist to attack George W. Bush. In fact, it's not even terribly interested in him -- he's little more than the McGuffin, whose "election" to the White House sets the real story in motion. The reality of the movie is that it's a portrait of journalism -- about the processes overlooked and liberties potentially taken by an author who expected his book to fall through the cracks, only to have it gain incendiary national attention. That the possibility exists that Hatfield is being deceptive only adds to the gray-area picture Horns and Halos paints. Like Billy Ray's Shattered Glass, this film digs deeply into two contradicting individuals: punk-rock publisher Sander Hicks and doomed author James Hatfield. The dynamic between the two men is forever changing, due in part to Hatfield's volatile private side -- though often composed and even polite on camera, there are numerous hints at a far darker element of the author's personality (his e-mails to Hicks being one such example). It's Hatfield's contrasting personas, not anything Bush-related, that provide the "horns and halos" of the film's title (though the title itself comes from a Hatfield quote about the content of his book). Knowing that these demons exist, it becomes more and more apparent that there will be no happy ending for Hatfield -- when the final tragic turn occurs, it hardly comes as a surprise.
Though Hatfield is at the center of Horns and Halos, the real star of the film is Sander Hicks, a man fascinating and charismatic enough to have warranted his very own documentary. Hicks is a true American original: handsome, well spoken, intelligent and quick-witted, intensely passionate and fiercely political. The same man who makes every public appearance in a jacket and tie is the same man sweeping floors in the basement of the building from which he secretly runs a publishing company, the same man who acts as lead singer in the hardcore punk band White Collar Crime. Without necessarily even meaning to do so, Hicks dominates the film -- though he never seems to shy away from the camera, one never gets the feeling that he's playing an angle or selling a fake persona. Getting to know Hicks nearly makes Horns and Halos worth seeing alone.
The film is being released as a two-disc special edition, following the new trend of having the film appear on the first disc and the supplemental material alone on the second. The 1.85:1 image, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, is presentable; being that most of it has been shot on video, the picture quality is accurate but far from outstanding. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is serviceable as well. Since the movie is entirely dialogue-driven, anything else would probably have been overkill.
Go Kart Films has included a boatload of extras on their two-disc edition of Horns and Halos, most of which are necessary to flesh out the documentary's meaning and impact. That says a lot for the extras, but doesn't speak well of the actual film -- the whole thing feels somewhat incomplete. That may be because the story Hawley and Galinsky are telling wouldn't stop evolving; even its tragic climax is not the definitive end to the story of Fortunate Son. Or it may be that the two directors became so caught up in trying to shape the documentary into a chronological narrative that it loses some of its perspective -- something gained by viewing several outtake interviews by "talking head" journalists who appear all too briefly in the finished film. Only after sifting through all the extras does one have a complete understanding. There's a kind of inherent frustration in that, though, because you want the film itself to have provided that effect. It may be too often nowadays that filmmakers rely on the DVD to act as a film's finished product, and sell their films short in the process.
It's that feeling of incompleteness that keeps Horns and Halos from totally working -- it's just never as focused or driven as you want it to be. Still, it does provide a fascinating and tragic portrait of a man undone by his own demons, and the one-of-a-kind stranger who believed in him. There are worse ways to spend 79 minutes.
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Two Feature Interviews with Author James Hatfield
* Extended Interviews
* Protest Coverage
* Ralph Nader Rally Footage
* George W. Bush Inauguration Protests
* White Collar Crime Performance Footage
* Horns and Halos "Real to Reel" Profile
* Sander Hicks Interview
* KCET Profile
* WNYU Radio Interview with Directors
* Official Site