The timing couldn't be any more perfect. Republican strategist Lee Atwater was responsible for launching Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign in a town known mainly for murdering civil-rights workers, then throwing the race-baiting Willie Horton ad at Michael Dukakis in 1988, and throughout his career running all kinds of amoral whisper campaigns against Democrats (a favorite was the mental instability charge). Atwater's protégé Karl Rove used the same playbook against John McCain in the Republican primary in South Carolina in 2000, derailing McCain's candidacy amid false whispers about McCain having fathered a black child out of wedlock (and setting George W. Bush on the path to two terms as president).

Now, in one of the great ironies of modern presidential politics, John McCain and his chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, are desperately using Atwater-style tactics against Barack Obama, trying to combat sagging McCain poll numbers by suggesting Obama is a terrorist sympathizer and a dangerously unknown quantity (read: Manchurian Candidate). Schmidt, of course, is a Rove protégé—which makes him basically the grandson of Atwater and shows both how durable Republicans believe the Atwater magic to be and how out-of-new-ideas their party has become.

But about the documentary: It is a wonderful, cold-eyed look at what created this man/monster. It turns out, both depressingly and satisfyingly, that Atwater's evolution is an old story. At a young age, his younger brother was burned to death before his eyes by a pot of boiling cooking oil that fell off his mother's kitchen counter. Why believe in a just world after that? Atwater didn't, and on top of that he had a chip on his shoulder about the condescension white Southerners like himself suffered from Northern elites. Naturally, he went on to perfect the art of doing everything that just, decent, moral people won't do to get elected—and doing it, most famously, to that quintessential Northern elite, Dukakis. Then, as he was dying of a brain tumor in his 40s, his face puffed up by steroids, his enemies circling, Atwater came to regret it all. He had grabbed power, but in the process he had given away his soul. By that time, though, it was too late—for him, and for the country.

This documentary might be unbearable for liberals to watch were it not for the fact that this year, finally, Democrats have learned how to respond to Atwater-style (and heir-of-Atwater-style) attacks. The final bit of schadenfreude: It's an African-American who's doing it, and the polls say he's going to win.