The controversy over “Fortunate Son,” the biography of George W. Bush that St. Martin’s Press pulled from distribution because of its scandalous allegations about the candidate and its author’s checkered past, is at the center of this documentary by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, but the film isn’t really about the then-Texas Governor. It’s actually a portrait of the curious friendship that developed between the hapless writer of the book, J.H. Hatfield, and Sander Hicks, the head of underground Soft Skull Press, which picked up “Son” and tried to promote it into a best seller. “Horns and Halos”–a title which refers to the sort of warts-and-all biography that Hatfield claims he was honestly trying to create–gets its interest from the odd character of the two men involved.
The picture begins as Hicks, a naturally punkish sort who grows progressively more establishment, at least in terms of his grooming, as the story goes on, is beginning his push toward reprinting “Son” after St. Martin’s decision. A small-time operation working out of some untidy basement digs, Soft Skull is a precarious operation at best, and Hicks’s decision to go with the book is a mixture of idealism and opportunism. The documentary follows the course of the venture chronologically, focusing on the efforts of Hicks and Hatfield to promote the book and dealing with the legal issues that periodically arise (a sequence involving a “60 Minutes” piece is especially amusing); but it also pauses periodically to look back on the history behind the story, offering–for example–recollections by some Texas journalists about how they uncovered information about the author’s past (he’d served time for plotting a killing) which threw his credibility into serious question. There’s a kind of false denouement when Hatfield finally reveals his source for the most salacious allegations in the volume–but that’s certainly topped by revelations about the outcome the experience brought to each man.
“Horns and Halos” has a lovely irony about it, in that a book about a fellow who rose without much talent but all the right connections effortlessly to the pinnacle of power dashed the aspirations of two guys who, in their own way, were struggling to climb the ladder of success too; a volume about the ridiculously easy fulfillment of the American dream for one man became the means by which that same dream was squelched for others. The fate of the makers of this little picture, which covers the story decently but not brilliantly, will probably fall between those two extremes. “Horns and Halos” is interesting, but in an era of truly great documentaries no more than that.