One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern (2005) is a seriously flawed but sometimes intriguing documentary about the ill-fated Democratic candidate for the 1972 race against incumbent Richard Nixon, whose landslide victory over the "prairie populist" from South Dakota in retrospect now plays like a sick joke. This documentary invites obvious but undeniably relevant parallels to current events -- policies toward Vietnam then and Iraq now particularly -- while at the same time persuasively makes the case that many of the current administration's strategies, such as its carefully perpetuated culture of fear, either had their genesis or crystallized during the 1968 and '72 campaigns in which McGovern ran for the White House, strategies and policies McGovern was battling 40 years ago, when such views were a lot less popular.
McGovern, who had promised to stop the bombing of Indochina the day he was inaugurated, was among the earliest opponents to the Vietnam War though he did support President Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that era's equivalent of congress's support of President Bush's expansion of powers after his administration's claims of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. McGovern, now 84, is extensively interviewed for the documentary, and considers this support his greatest mistake as a U.S. Senator, taking the president at his word.
The film tries to cover too much ground, wanting to include every major political / social / historical milestone from the Kennedy Inauguration through Nixon's resignation, no matter how tangential McGovern's involvement (or not) may have been. For instance, among the interview subjects is curmudgeonly Dick Gregory, but most of his often eyebrow-raising comments have nothing to do with McGovern, nor do many of Gore Vidal's admittedly entertaining swipes at the Bush Administration, and writer/producer/director Stephen Vittoria strains to tie everything together.
In trying to cover so much ground, the film is also criminally overlong. At 123 minutes, we don't even get to that forgotten summer until the film is more than half over, around the 73-minute mark.
But its biggest liability is its intensely annoying narration (spoken by Amy Goodman), whose constant preaching is certain to irritate even those in the choir. It's less a narration than a series of snide declarations, and no matter your political affiliation you'll likely resent all its naked editorializing.
But when the film straightforwardly details McGovern's political career and strikes a good balance between archival clips, interviews with McGovern and various supporters and historians, including Warren Beatty, Gary Hart (yes, the), Ron Kovic, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn and others, the film is relatively engrossing.
The picture reaches an emotional high at the all-inclusive 1972 Democratic Convention, which one of the interviewees aptly describes as "the last unscripted" such event perhaps ever in American politics. Unfortunately for McGovern, it was all downhill from there.
Video & Audio
One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern is yet another 1.77:1 widescreen release pointlessly not enhanced for widescreen TVs. In this day and age such presentations are simple inexcusable: in most cases we're talking about flipping the right switch during the mastering process. Otherwise, the image is okay, as is the modest stereo audio. There are no subtitle options, unfortunately.
Supplements include Vietnam Storyteller, an insufferable seven-minute short directed by Vittoria and starring Casey Biggs as a kind of "anti-matter world" Bill O'Reilly, though creating a radical left equivalent of the vomitous Fox commentator was perhaps not the aim of the filmmaker. A 10-minute Interview with Amy Goodman makes one wonder if she wrote that narration after all, while a Trailer rounds out the extras.
The canonization of George McGovern that One Bright Shining Moment emphatically endorses may strike some as faintly ridiculous but, like the reappraisal of Al Gore on a much smaller-potatoes political scale today, history and hindsight have given much credence to many of McGovern's once far left-of-center views, and as Steinem says near the end, his old supporters can gather at reunions with a pride the Nixonites cannot.
Addendum: Reader Steve Shuttleworth argues that "As a 58-year-old Vietnam-era vet who worked on his campaign and lived through the period as a young person, I can tell you that McGovern's view were NOT 'far left-of-center.' The unhappy (for me and my ilk) fact is that the political scene in this country has gone so far to the right in the last 34 years, that his views and policies seem radical to those who came later. The loony bunch who now occupy the 3 branches of the federal government and have introduced widespread domestic spying, torture, disappearances (a la Argentina and Chile)and election theft among other current delights, have made humanism, kindness and honesty seem effete and (dare I say it) pro-terrorist."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.