It’s not easy to get away with badmouthing a president on a public stage. Good old boys have friends in high places, so when J.T. Hatfield’s unauthorized 1999 biography of George W. Bush hit bookstores and was discovered to allege that a 1972 drug arrest had not only taken place but had been quashed by his father, the book had barely shown up on shelves before lawsuits were filed and copies were pulled from shelves and destroyed. Horns and Halos follows Hatfield and his publisher’s struggle to get Fortunate Son back in print.
Filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley spent several years making their documentary on the Fortunate Son struggle, and despite the completely bare-bones nature of the project, they’ve put together a good look at a story the mainstream media was loath to touch. Horns and Halos starts with coverage of Hatfield and punk-rock publisher Sander Hicks (whose Soft Skull Press is run out of a basement office in the apartment building he supers in New York) at the 2001 Chicago Book Expo as they mount a last-ditch effort to get the book some publicity. Moving back even earlier, Galinsky and Hawley cover the book’s second adolescence as Hicks rescues it from purgatory at St. Martin’s Press and works with Hatfield to properly research and validate his text.
For Hicks, who is most often found in a Mohawk fronting his band, White Collar Crime, getting Fortunate Son into polished form is vastly more important than turning a profit on the book. At one point, Hicks even acquires copies of President Bush’s military service record while rechecking Hatfield’s work and makes a series of educated guesses and deductions that cast doubt on Bush’s insistence that he was not using the Air National Guard as a means of escaping Vietnam. Hicks is at once gleeful and disgusted with his discovery; his sense of hope of eventually sticking it to the man is what really keeps Fortunate Son alive.
But for all of Hicks’ dreams and plans, Hatfield is his opposite, a sad figure who has been destroyed by the ramifications of things he has said and done: alleging cocaine use by Bush and doing time in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Hatfield seems proud of his work, but lacks the confidence and drive Hicks displays on a minute-by-minute basis, having been brought low by the media in 1999 when he was decried as a fraud and a liar, somebody not to be trusted based on his ex-convict status. Even when the author reveals his anonymous sources on the drug bust issue, nobody in a position to do so cares. Hatfield’s postscript is both damning and tragic, but his book does live on. Fortunate Son is still in print and available from such booksellers as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.