Horns and Halos (2002)

Terry Sawyer

The real thrill of Horns and Halos is watching an upstart DIY publisher make a noticeable dent by championing what everyone else might see as a lost cause.

Horns and Halos

Director: Suki Hawley
Cast: Rev. Billy, Pamela Colloff, James Hatfield, Sanders Hicks, Mark Crispin Miller
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Go-Kart Films
Display Artist: Michael Galinksy, Suki Hawley
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2004-10-05

During the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign, a minor controversy erupted when St. Martin's Press published Fortunate Son. The book claimed that in 1972, George W. Bush was arrested for cocaine possession and sentenced to community service, but his family quashed the official record. Bush the Elder threatened to release the legal hounds during an angry Fox News appearance. Subsequently, it was discovered by other journalists that many of people cited as sources in the book claimed to have had no contact with the author, James Hatfield. Making matters worse, the Dallas Morning News revealed that Hatfield had a prior conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. St. Martin's, fearing libel and embarrassed by their writer's strained credulity, pulled the book and discontinued further printing.

Horns and Halos tells the story of Hatfield's (near) resurrection, with the help of activist publisher Sanders Hicks, founder of New York City independent press, Soft Skull. In many ways, they couldn't be a more unlikely pair. Sanders is the singer of a punk rock band, running a radical indie book company from the basement of the apartment complex where he is the maintenance man. He exudes mania, clearly relishing the possibility of sticking his dick in the eye of the "superstructure." Hatfield, by contrast, seems to have absorbed every black ounce of trauma from his pillorying in the press. He chain-smokes cigarettes, has dark bags under his eyes, and rarely breaks out of the gray mood range of someone pickled in anti-depressants.

Their collaboration is not without frictions. Hatfield sends furious e-mails complaining that Hicks' attempts to verify his resume information is tantamount to betrayal. Though Hatfield appears perpetually ready to sever the relationship, Hicks gently nudges him back to the fight with "Go get 'em, Tiger" speeches. Still, these tensions ignite when Hatfield adds a foreword to the second edition explaining his crime, and is sued by his criminal co-conspirator, a development that leads to the book being pulled again from bookstores, and Soft Skull settling the case out of court.

Soft Skull then releases yet another edition, minus the foreword. In what seems a ploy to generate interest in this new version, Hatfield finally reveals his sources for the cocaine arrest story as Karl Rove and Clay Johnson. At this point, the cracks in his story overwhelm his credibility, and the journalists gathered at the Soft Skull press conference to hear the revelation roll their eyes in unison. They know the likelihood of Rove revealing a cocaine arrest to a writer who'd previously written ass-kissing biographies of Ewan McGregor and Patrick Stewart is simply unbelievable. What's worse is that Hicks uses this opportunity to put forth the wholly unsubstantiated theory that Rove released this damning story to Hatfield in order to discredit the story before a more reputable source found the lead (a theory Hatfield repeatedly dismisses as bogus in the DVD commentaries).

While the documentary handles the basic bones of the story with scrappy elegance, the DVD extras offer unusually useful -- one might argue crucial -- material. An extra disc comes loaded (some might say larded) with extra footage, explanatory features, and extended interviews with everyone interviewed for the movie. The footage gives a better picture of the mental and physical toll this entire ordeal has taken on Hatfield. During an interview conducted one night at a gas station, he warns, "If anything happens to me, get it out to the press." The people behind the camera laugh nervously, but he's clearly dead serious. At the same time, the interviews reveal his financial despair, foreshadowing the crime (applying for a credit card in someone else's name) that would lead to a second arrest and perhaps his suicide in a cheap motel. Hatfield's weird admissions about his "buried anger" and doing harm to his child in a moment of rage, further muddy the film's portrait: he might be a regular Joe caught in circumstances beyond his control, or a liar pulled under by his own dark psyche.

The closest Hatfield comes to confronting his criminal history is during a Pacifica interview (on the second disc), as he matter-of-factly lays out a brief outline of the conspiracy. But this isn't sufficient. Granted, the documentary makers go to great lengths to argue that the conviction is irrelevant to the credibility of his work. However, since the book's most controversial claim was based on anonymous sourcing and he later lied to reporters and his publisher, his incarceration plagues the viewer with doubt.

Other extras on the DVD are even less useful. The shamelessly self-promoting footage of Sanders Hicks' band, White Collar Crime, is hardly necessary. Shots of George Bush protests and a Ralph Nader rally also add nothing to the original story, except to ensconce Hicks and Soft Skull in some broader progressive movement. (Though I must admit a certain amount of catty glee to see the impassioned speeches of celebrities then supporting Nader who this year begged him not to run.)

Now, a handful of journalists and media analysts are pondering the Fortunate Son incident from many angles, including the timidity of media when attacking George Bush, and the economic realities of publishing and promoting books. Indeed, Hatfield's believability is not the most important question raised by Horns and Halos. I already think George Bush was a cokehead and I'm fairly convinced that Hatfield, at the very least, was not a trustworthy journalist. The real thrill here is watching an upstart DIY publisher make a noticeable dent by championing what everyone else might see as a lost cause. Sanders Hicks' indefatigable enthusiasm for the book and political criticism, and his will to transform that enthusiasm into action is the film's heroic subtext. It reveals two rebels, one electrified by the clarity of his cause and the other reluctantly dragged along to a bitter end.

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