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One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern

September 16, 2005
The History of a Dove
Decency must have a place in democracy somewhere, but the brawl for the highest elective office crowded out one man who didn't have it in him, to his credit, to be ruthless. So asserts "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern," a wan but well-researched apotheosis of the former senator from South Dakota.

Mr. McGovern emerged as the Democrats' pick to unseat Richard M. Nixon in 1972, in the presidency's darkest hour. As a onetime B-24 pilot in World War II, the soft-spoken academic could have boasted of the most valorous military service of any recent candidate, the documentary says. But his antiwar declarations were central to his ascent to leader of his party, when the public was ready to hear someone authoritative finally declare the Vietnam conflict unwinnable.

The film, directed by Stephen Vittoria, is consistently worshipful of the decorated veteran who emerged as a dove, and Mr. McGovern, now 83, complies, with insights about his humble history. He weathers the Depression, marries his sweetheart from Dakota Wesleyan University and pursues a doctorate in history at Northwestern University, before taking over his home state's struggling progressive movement. He eventually rises to the Senate, after a failed attempt, and his tenure there (1962-80) starts to feel overglorified as the documentary shows him, in his later years, reciting his old floor speeches in a recording studio.

Then the narrator, the Pacifica Network's Amy Goodman, chimes in with unnecessary sarcasm about Mr. McGovern's opponents. For instance she describes one rival as backed by "that pillar of American justice, J. Edgar Hoover." The less we hear such snide commentary the better the film gets, as it presents interviews with sympathetic McGovernites like Gloria Steinem, the party insider Frank Mankiewicz, Gary Hart and Warren Beatty. It's startling to see how much these 1970's opinion leaders have aged, but their convictions are intact. Many declare that the McGovern-Nixon race was pivotal, that its outcome sent the country in a direction even Nixon supporters came to regret.

Gore Vidal appears on screen with an abbreviated version of his "United States of Amnesia" screed, and his tsk-tsking and that of the civil rights advocate Dick Gregory lose virulence and gain validity, given the collapse of Nixon's credibility. Still, as the documentary plods past the two-hour mark, much of Mr. McGovern's legend seems dependent on Nixon's faults, and even the Democrat's political supporters, with hindsight's many gifts, can't infuse his persona with any more dynamism. Throughout the unevenly told story of his foray into high-stakes politics, he remains the mild, honorable foil to an agitated, dissembling president.

One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern

Opens today in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Stephen Vittoria; directors of photography, Patrick Kelly and Gilbert Yousefian; edited by Jeff Sterling; narrated by Amy Goodman; music by Robert Guillory; produced by Mr. Vittoria and Frank Fischer; released by First Run Features. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 125 minutes. This film is not rated.
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