ONE BRIGHT SHINING MOMENT: THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER OF GEORGE MCGOVERNNR
George McGovern doesn't seem like a vain man, but One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern seems like a vanity production. This documentary about McGovern's failed bid for the U.S. presidency is just too hagiographic to engage anyone but the most nostalgic follower of the 1972 campaign. Director Stephen Vittoria obviously means well, but by trying to restore McGovern's reputation, the filmmaker strays too far from the evenhanded style of reportage necessary.
One Bright Shining Moment essentially deals with how the outsider McGovern grabbed the nomination for Democratic presidential candidate during the primary season by rallying angry young followers through his stand against the Vietnam War. There is some background about McGovern's humble upbringing in rural South Dakota and his career as senator of South Dakota in the 1960s, but the film concentrates on McGovern's two-year run (from 1970 to 1972) against his fellow Democrats-to secure the nomination-and his general election campaign against Republican incumbent Richard M. Nixon.
Vittoria interweaves archival stills and footage with contemporary interviews featuring McGovern and his "footsoldiers": Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Warren Beatty, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart, Jim Bouton, Ron Kovic, and the less celebrated supporters, Frank Mankiewicz, Howard Zinn, Sen. Jim Abourezk and Rev. Malcolm Boyd.
Like the recent documentary about John Kerry, Paul Alexander's Brothers in Arms, One Bright Shining Moment wants to set the record straight, dispelling the misimpressions of the subject. Brothers in Arms restores John Kerry's image as a war hero (following the smear campaign against him by the Swiftboat Veterans). Shining Moment corrects the idea that McGovern was "too decent to be president" and rethinks his standing as a political loser. Unfortunately, the film would succeed better in its goals if it didn't try so hard.
The fact that Vittoria only interviews McGovern and his supporters provides cannon fodder for anyone who disagreed with McGovern; it is likely that there are some McGovern enemies who actually changed their minds over the years and would make great interviews. If nothing else, some sound bytes from the hardened opposition would provide a dramatically dialectical contrast. In fact, there is so much more anger here toward fellow Democrat Hubert Humphrey than Nixon that one wonders what the Humphrey "footsoldiers" have to say. It is also curious that John Kerry is never referenced and Shirley Chisholm's 1972 campaign as the first woman to run for president is barely mentioned, let alone praised.
Another flaw is the attempt to cast McGovern as the only honest man who ever ran for president. Probably McGovern was honest for the most part, but no one becomes president or senator or runs for any political office without some compromising, and Shining Moment inadvertently reveals this conundrum by asserting that the shooting of George Wallace rang the death knell for McGovern's campaign, since it meant losing the South. What the film implies here (in addition to the idea that Nixon was behind the assassination attempt) is that McGovern needed and wanted Wallace on his side. But weren't these two Democrats diametrically opposed on most issues? Just a little bit earlier, the film condemns other politicians for scheming to win; McGovern had to be schemer, too, but he was just inept at the job.
Of course, you wouldn't know McGovern mishandled his campaign from Shining Moment. There are only a few brief passages that allude to the disastrous choice of Thomas Eagleton, with his history of mental illness, as a running mate, or the scheduling of McGovern's convention acceptance speech at 2:30 a.m. Neither of these obvious mistakes is laid at McGovern's feet.
Instead, the interviewees think the world would be very different place had McGovern been elected and speculate how today there might not be wars or cultural divides or ugliness in politics. Such naiveté is not only the reason McGovern lost in 1972, but why Howard Dean tanked in 2004. The fact is, if a liberal candidate wants to win, high ideals alone won't succeed in a system so corrupted.