One Bright Shining Moment

on September 16, 2005 by Kim Williamson
Subtitled "The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern," the latest documentary from filmmaker Stephen Vittoria ("Hollywood Boulevard") recalls the period in the 1972 presidential campaign when World War II hero and South Dakota senator George McGovern was winning the Democratic nomination and was within a few percentage points in the polls of equaling the support for the Republican incumbent. It was a moment of optimism in a strife-torn era, when the massive number of voting-age youths and a diverse assortment of older folks disillusioned by the Vietnam war and the distressed economy saw in McGovern a hope for a refreshed American future -- before Democratic party infighting and the sorry running-mate choice of Missouri senator Tom Eagleton, who soon after nomination revealed he'd suffered from psychological problems, sent the McGovern campaign into a tailspin that ended in an election result that saw only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia give the Democratic candidate victories.

In terms of recapturing the time that was, "One Bright Shining Moment" is rather effective -- although it feels to be revealing that time from certain distance: It's more "about" than "of." (Whereas an antiwar-era document like "Woodstock" feels "of," not "about.") Less effective is the description of McGovern, which tends toward the hagiographic. His many decades of virtuous public service -- compare it to what we have today -- has long left no doubt that McGovern, the prairie-born son of a preacher who learned not only Christian but purely humane values, is a wise and compassionate man. But the heapin' helpin' of hospitality that Vittoria accords his subject (notably at the expense not only of Republicans but also a bevy of Democrats) carries just the limited intelligence of a huzzah. Although he's subdued by age, the simple presence of McGovern in the film is what carries weight. Aiding the proceedings are such era notables as Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart, Howard Zinn, Ron Kovic and Jim Bouton -- their statuses as feminist, civil rights leader, campaigner, professor, Vietnam War vet and New York Yankees pitcher exemplifying McGovern's ranging draw -- but it's probably Steinem who makes the most pointed comment of all, when she notes that she and the other McGovern supporters went on to see him lose, remaining sad but proud, whereas the eventually humiliated campaigners on the red side went on to see their man win, only to have him become the historical epithet "Nixon." Narrated by Amy Goodman. Directed, written and produced by Stephen Vittoria. Documentary. A First Run release. Unrated. Running time: 125 min

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