Sometimes you can really see the difference between great documentary filmmaking and mediocre documentary filmmaking. Spellbound, for instance, takes an innocuous subject – kids in a spelling bee – and turns it into a gripping, thought-provoking American saga. On the other side of the spectrum, Horns and Halos takes highly flammable material and squanders it, due to its filmmakers' muddled sense of purpose.
In 1999, sad-sack biographer James Hatfield decided to break out of the rut of fluffy movie star books and penned an expose on then-presidential nominee George W. Bush. Of all the bombshells in Hatfield's book, Fortunate Son, the biggest was that Bush was arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession and used his powerful family ties to have the charges dismissed and erased from the record. Unfortunately, just three days after Fortunate Son hit bookstores, the media discovered that Hatfield had served time in jail for conspiracy to murder. His publisher, the respectable St. Martin's Press, immediately yanked the book from the shelves.
Horns and Halos unfolds some time later, after Hatfield partnered up with a new publisher, a hyperactive punk rocker named Sander Hicks, who ran a do-it-yourself publishing house in the basement of the building he worked in (as the janitor!) called Soft Skull Press. Determined to Stick It to the Man, Hicks embarked on a two-year-long odyssey to bring Hatfield's book back to the public. Both men encountered wild ups and downs – a 60 Minutes segment, a lawsuit from Hatfield's former murder co-conspirator, pressure from Bush's lawyers – only to have their story end tragically.
Great stuff here, so what's wrong with the movie?
Well, it's not boring, it's not stupid, but filmmakers Galinsky and Hawley lack gumption. They become uncertain about the validity of some of Hatfield's claims, yet don't have the chops to try to answer the question of whether Hatfield was telling the truth.
You sure want to believe Hatfield – especially when he claimed that it was none other than Bush's chief political advisor Karl Rove who fed him the cocaine arrest story (Hatfield claimed that Rove did so because he knew of Hatfield's shady past, and could thus discredit the author upon the book's release). But because we see so little of Hatfield in the film, we don't get to find out just what he's about, since the camera wasn't there at the right moments.
Instead we spend far too much time with the show-offy Hicks, a naive Henry Rollins wannabe whose devil-may-care demeanor, eccentric punk wardrobe, and kooky haircuts may have done far more to invalidate the integrity of Fortunate Son than anything Bush's attorneys could have come up with. But Galinsky and Hawley don't seem to even fully recognize that.
In the end we're left with a frustrating, unfinished portrait of strange bedfellows whose biggest mistake was keeping explosive allegations about President Bush on the cultural fringes, where they could be written off as a couple of leftist kooks. This documentary doesn't change that one bit.