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Reassessing McGovern

Yes, he lost, but 'Moment' depicts his nomination as a great moment for democracy.

November 18, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If Americans think of Democratic candidate George McGovern at all, it's as the man who suffered one of the worst electoral defeats of all time, losing every state but Massachusetts in his 1972 presidential contest with incumbent Republican Richard M. Nixon. It is the business of "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern" to change that mind-set, and it largely succeeds.

The thesis of this film, written and directed by Stephen Vittoria, is that the success of McGovern's long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination was a great moment in American politics, a high-water mark of idealism and citizen involvement in democracy.

The film's greatest asset and strongest selling point is the former senator from South Dakota himself, thoughtful and articulate at age 83, who talks candidly, even eloquently, about his political career.

McGovern, the son of a minister, flew 35 World War II missions in a B-24 before briefly attending a theological seminary and then becoming an unlikely politician. Fighting against the odds was in his nature: When he began in South Dakota politics, only two of 110 state legislators were Democrats.

Called "the most decent man in the Senate -- probably the only one" by Robert F. Kennedy, McGovern's calmness, his unmistakable sense of honesty and fair play make him a most attractive figure in today's world of political expediency. As supporter Warren Beatty says, "It's hard to find someone who's run for something and has engendered as much affection as George McGovern."

Hearing and seeing the senator's decade-long opposition to the war in Vietnam, his refusal to compromise what he believed in, makes it all too apparent what is missing in contemporary Washington. It's difficult to hear McGovern simply say, "Let's bring this war to an end, let's admit that we made a mistake, let's stop killing these young men," without thinking about what a message like that delivered in the man's quiet style would mean today.

In addition to McGovern's, the film utilizes a wide and interesting variety of articulate voices. Aside from Beatty, these include Gloria Steinem, former Yankee Jim Bouton (a McGovern delegate way back when), Ron Kovic, Dick Gregory, Gore Vidal and Howard Zinn.

"One Bright Shining Moment" is at its best reminding us what went right and what went wrong in the senator's 1972 campaign against Nixon. Among the body blows the McGovern forces never recovered from were a damaging convention credentials fight on behalf of Hubert Humphrey, the ruinous naming of Thomas Eagleton as running mate and having the nominee's acceptance speech nationally broadcast at 2:30 a.m. Eastern time.

Though McGovern is the furthest thing from angry, "One Bright Shining Moment" takes the opposite tack. It has a tendency to push too far and be too hostile, especially in writer-director Vittoria's hectoring voice-over read by Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman. Loose-cannon potshots at "morally bankrupt power brokers" and "patriotic impostors" are likely to turn off all but the truest believers, which, given the breadth of McGovern's on-camera appeal, is a shame.


'One Bright Shining Moment'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Released by First Run Features. Director Stephen Vittoria. Producer Stephen Vittoria, Frank Fischer. Exeuctive producer Michael C. Donaldson. Screenplay Stephen Vittoria. Cinematographers Patrick Kelly, Gilbert Yousefina. Editor Jeff Sterling. Music Robert Guillory. Narrator Amy Goodman. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

In limited release.

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