Film Review: Moynihan

An intelligently crafted profile, 'Moynihan' combines archival footage of its subject, four-term New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with compelling talking heads offering enlightening opinions about the colorful scholar-author-politician.
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I’m afraid the only people who will go to see Moynihan, an intelligently crafted, information-dense documentary, are those who already appreciate what a remarkable statesman New York’s four-term Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was. Will those unfamiliar with the prescient scholar-author-politician choose to sit through a laudatory profile of a dead white man who worked for LBJ and Richard Nixon? Let’s hope so, as the biographical film rewards attentive viewing with an abundance of fun-to-chew-on big ideas of contemporary political relevance. It also joyously brings to life one of the most colorful, brainy characters in 20th-century American politics.

Directed and produced by Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich, the film does an excellent job of explaining the nuances of the controversy surrounding the infamous “Moynihan Report,” which tarnished the great liberal’s reputation among African-Americans and may be the only association many people today make with the name Moynihan. A believer in “big government”—of the FDR New Deal variety—and an ardent advocate of public assistance for the black urban poor, in 1965 Moynihan wrote an impassioned report, designed to elicit LBJ’s support for jobs programs. But because the report spotlighted research linking broken families to unemployment within black communities, Moynihan was severely criticized from the left for “blaming the victim.” What the film does so well is to also contextualize the roots of the controversy within the larger racial climate of its time, the immediate aftermath of the Watts riots.

The filmmakers situate Moynihan’s personal story firmly within the explosive political landscapes that formed the backdrop of his formative years and tenure in politics. Known as “Pat,” Moynihan grew up poor in a single-parent household during the Depression, helped to shape LBJ’s War on Poverty as Assistant Secretary of Labor in the mid-1960s, drafted the first U.S. governmental memo on global warming as Nixon’s domestic policy advisor in the late 1960s, vociferously defended America as its UN Ambassador from 1975-76, and for the next 24 years served in the U.S. Senate, where he predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union as early as 1980 and, according to Joe Biden, was “constantly writing an essay about something.” Featuring archival footage that illustrates Moynihan’s irrepressible personality, the documentary also makes exemplary use of an enormous cast of talking heads, all of whom deliver provocative descriptions and opinions of Moynihan in thoughtful, concise statements. Either they all are naturally compelling communicators or, more likely, the filmmakers crafted smartly targeted questions that elicited meaningful comments, and edited the interviewees’ remarks with a keen precision that highlights the magnitude of Moynihan’s influence. We hear from his widow, who talks about how “the War on Poverty was planned over spaghetti dinners at the Moynihans’,” from Senators Bob Kerrey, Trent Lott and Chuck Schumer (a former student of Moynihan at Harvard in the 1960s), and from Henry Kissinger, from whom we learn that on social issues Nixon “moved in the direction Pat charted for him.”

But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film is its proffering of big ideas that get viewers to think broadly across time. At the outset we are asked to consider the claim that had Moynihan lived in 1700s New England, he would have been one of the most prominent members of our founding fathers. And with no prompting whatsoever, all viewers will certainly tie today’s political climate to what we’re told is Moynihan’s most well-known quip: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”