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'Boogie Man' plays devilish tunes

Like a trompe l'oeil painting, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" deftly positions its subject as both the savior of the Republican Party and the Antichrist of American politics.

Generous in spirit and nimble in technique, this riveting documentary about the Republican operative (who died of a brain tumor in 1991) reveals a scrappy genius rife with contradictions: a blues player and friend of B.B. King who is said to have engineered the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad; a proud Southerner who cynically manipulated his region's distrust of Eastern elites.

Barbara Bush hated his vulgarity, but her husband and son were indebted to it. One interviewee suggests that President Reagan might have followed his terms in the White House with one in the big house had it not been for Atwater's intervention.

Journalists, friends and political roadkill -- a jocular Sam Donaldson, an emotional Ed Rollins, a pained Michael Dukakis -- evince a mixture of reverence and repulsion.

But "Boogie Man" is neither encomium nor hatchet job. Instead, director Stefan Forbes assembles a wealth of found footage into a Gordian portrait of a man whose ability to do the splits exceeded the physical.

Plumbing the roots of negative campaigning, "Boogie Man" shines a sickening spotlight on a thriving political strategy, suggesting that the devil may indeed have all the best tunes.

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