Horns and Halos concerns the fate of Fortunate Son, the unauthorized biography of George W. Bush by James Hatfield that was recalled by its publisher, St. Martin's Press, in 1999, then picked up and reprinted by Soft Skull Press, an alternative publishing house run by the enterprising punk-rock devotee Sander Hicks. The traumatic obstacles experienced by Hatfield and Hicks form the dramatic core of the piece, which is told mostly in chronological order, although it begins near the end of the tale, after a libel suit greatly diminishes the opportunities for Soft Skull to market and sell the book.

Fortunate Son turns out to be a more ironically appropriate title than even Hatfield probably intended, since it is Hatfield's own criminal past that causes his downfall. (Isn't Bush lucky to have his most critical biographer turn out to be a former convicted felon--for conspiracy to murder, yet!) Nevertheless, as Hawley and Galinsky make clear, the adverse publicity about Hatfield provided an excuse for St. Martin's to pull the book, and the controversy drowned out any news coverage of Hatfield's most serious charges against Bush (his insider trading, draft-dodging, and arrest for cocaine possession in 1972). Moreover, as we learn late in the film, Bush's powerful campaign operator, Karl Rove, cunningly orchestrated the timing of the news about Hatfield, so the fallout from the book would have little or no effect on the 2000 election.

All this intrigue would be enough to make Horns and Halos informative entertainment. But what makes the film much more than a trenchant liberal or left-wing political tract (which would be good enough in these chillingly conservative times) is that it suggests the wide-ranging effects of media manipulation, from the kind of reporting that is done by the supposedly liberal media (represented by C-SPAN and "60 Minutes" in two tantalizing segments) to the intimate and ultimately tragic heartache of maverick individuals like Hatfield and Hicks.

Horns and Halos joins other recent searing critiques of the right-wing influence on the media: The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times, and Robert Pappas' yet-to-be-released Orwell Rolls in His Grave. But this funky yet state-of-the-art example of cinema verit adds an additional layer of interest by following two fascinating, complex characters, the prickly Hatfield and the manically charming Hicks, with fly-on-the-wall compassion and intensity. The travails of these sociopolitical outsiders give Horns and Halos the dimension of Shakespearean tragedy.

The title of the film comes from Hatfield's rhetorical question, 'What if someone wrote your biography? Would there be horns and halos involved?' But this title should really apply less to America's vapid, nominal leader (who clearly has more horns than halos) than to all those responsible for his glorified ascendancy.

--Eric Monder