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    One Bright Shining Moment

    Loss leader

    The admiring documentary "One Bright Shining Moment" tells the story of George McGovern — not just the guy who got clobbered by Nixon but the one who inspired a generation and opened the political system to social change.


    George McGovern has had 33 years to progress from icon to caricature.

    Written and directed by: Stephen Vittoria.
    Produced by: Frank Fischer, Stephen Vittoria.
    Featuring: Warren Beatty, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart, Ron Kovic, Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn.
    Narrated by: Amy Goodman.
    Cinematography: Patrick Kelly, Gilbert Yousefian.
    Edited by: Jeff Sterling.

    Related links: Official site
    Quad Cinema 34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University (212) 255-8800.


      Interview: George McGovern
    Former presidential candidate George McGovern is the subject of a new documentary that brings the issues of 1972 back to prominence during a time when they're as relevant as they ever were.

    Interview, Sept. 15, 2005   MP3
    As of last year, the way you were most likely to hear the former South Dakota senator's name was in the phrase "another McGovern," as in, "I don't know if I can vote for Howard Dean — he might be another McGovern." The name, from the increasingly remote year 1972, has now turned into a quick shorthand — for something. For "too liberal"? For "anti-war"? For three decades of losing? For the shame of his party?

    The new documentary "One Bright Shining Moment" fleshes out the story of McGovern and his doomed but brave campaign against Richard Nixon for the presidency. The issues of the day — almost no different, oddly enough, from the issues of today — were of life-and-death importance and were fundamental to who we are as a nation. Far from being a mere symbol, McGovern was seen by many as the first politician of their times willing to stand up for peace and social progress. In a country where disillusionment with our choice of leaders is the quadrennial norm, he was inspiring.

    "It's hard to find a person who's run for something who has engendered as much affection as George McGovern engendered," Warren Beatty recalls in the movie.

    The film traces McGovern's life from his student days in South Dakota to his military service in World War II, from his first Senate candidacy in 1962 to his doomed presidential bid of 1972. Deliberately flattering to the man himself, it usually manages to stop short of outright hagiography and gives us some meaningful lessons about the past and the present of the liberal idea.

    Was this just, as the title suggests, just one fleeting instant — a momentary peak for progressives, flanked by the Vietnam era on one side and the Reagan era on the other?  

    The film's most insightful moments surround the 1972 campaign, when the unlikely champion McGovern led what amounted to an open insurgency against the establishment favorites, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. It was a party in transition, divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights and the democratization of the Democratic Party itself. The convention in Miami marked the moment when some of the longhairs and blacks and feminists who had stood on the outside of the 1968 convention got a seat on the inside. The result was messy, disorganized — and perhaps already doomed to lose that November. But maybe it had the rough look of democracy to it.

      One Bright Shining Moment
    McGovern's acceptance speech (much criticized for having been delivered after almost the entire country's bedtime) is the culminating event of the movie — its "one bright shining moment." Filmmaker Stephen Vittoria clearly wants us to look at '72 not as the progressive disaster that it symbolizes to many today, but as a moment of unique courage and far-reaching consequences.

    We see McGovern, slightly longhaired for a politician, sweating in the Miami summer but speaking with confidence, standing up to defend peace and fundamental humanity in a way that the party's later standard-bearers have not dared (John Kerry comes to mind), or at least not until after they've already lost (Al Gore comes to mind). This was the rare instance when a leader had the courage to speak the truth about the most important issue of his time and people listened. (Don't trust anyone under 40 to know what that feels like.)

    Was this just, as the title suggests, just one fleeting instant — a momentary peak for progressives, flanked by the Vietnam era on one side and the Reagan era on the other? Well, the McGovern generation didn't trigger the same kind of resurgence that the '64 Goldwater campaign did among conservatives.

    "We didn't take the ball and run with it. McGovern had the ball — he threw it up there, and the class of '72 fumbled it."  

    "We didn't take the ball and run with it," one former insider says in the film. "McGovern had the ball — he threw it up there, and the class of '72 fumbled it."

    The film suggests that's not quite true. It looks at '72 as the convergence of a movement — the arrival of blacks, women, Hispanics, and even the newly energized gay movement in the mainstream of the party. And those folks have been heard from steadily over the last three decades. Democrats haven't been great at holding power in that time, but progressive movements have remade the culture. That's the legacy of '72, in the view of the film.

    "One Bright Shining Moment" has a few faults. In particular, it includes a couple of spliced-in polemics in the voice of narrator Amy Goodman that don't belong with the more straightforward narrative in the rest of the movie. But the film does us an important service by painting a fuller portrait of McGovern and his legacy, not just the stick figure we mean when we refer to "another McGovern." With our own intractable war and our own unmet domestic needs, it's easy (even without the narrator perorating about it) to see the relevance of this chapter of history. This is an excellent time to remind ourselves of this story. Another McGovern would have been a good thing to have the last five years.

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005

    Reader comments on One Bright Shining Moment:

  • campaigning for McGovern for Senate as a kid   from Gary Marston, Dec 26, 2005
  • McGovern, the pilot   from Joel Friedland, Dec 28, 2006

  • Post a comment on "One Bright Shining Moment"