George McGovern died yesterday. Here’s why you should mourn him.
Dir. Stephen Vittoria, 125 min, 2005, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Can you imagine history without a Watergate? I mean, besides the fact that the media would no longer insufferably add a “-gate” suffix to random words with every political scandal? What kind of outlook would America have had going into the 1970’s and beyond if the people hadn’t been betrayed by their president? There’s a presidential debate going down tonight, and a lot of people do not care. No one believes in the system because it’s broken, and the system is broken because no one believes in it.
It’s useless and silly to dwell too long on “what-ifs,” but watching One Bright Shining Moment, you can’t help but wonder how things might have gone if George McGovern had been elected president in 1972. I watched the doc in observance of McGovern’s death yesterday, at the age of 90. The dude left behind a long, admirable legacy, and this movie lays out everything great about him. It is totally worshipful and one-sided, but I didn’t care at all.
There are two big reasons for this, besides the fact that bias in docs doesn’t bother me at all. The first is that McGovern seems like such an awesome dude that getting all hagiographic on him feels not just natural but almost right. An air force pilot turned professor turned representative and then senator of South Dakota, he eschewed everything that people typically hate about politicians, refusing to compromise himself for the sake of popularity. He was a paragon of progressivism, advocating for the hungry, the disenfranchised, and, more than anything else, an end to the Vietnam War.
McGovern was the kind of politician who usually can only exist on the fringe of the mainstream. He was in a position of power but not in the spotlight, and thus could work for the changes he wanted without too much interference from the forces of the status quo. A comparable figure today would be Bernie Sanders. But here’s the thing: Bernie Sanders could never in a million years become the candidate of a major political party for president of the United States. McGovern did, and he is currently the last such candidate. Which makes sense, since Nixon crushed him utterly (Only Massachusetts and D.C.’s electoral votes went to McGovern. Ouch). Why would anyone try a riskier guy after that?
The other big reason that the hagiographic aspects work is that the movie is really only half about McGovern. It covers his life and political career in pretty good detail, but there’s also a lot of time devoted to the larger situation with the United States in the late 60’s and early 70’s, especially concerning the war in Vietnam. As a tribute to a good man, the doc is pleasant if unremarkable. As an encapsulation of a specific time, place, and feeling, it’s something much better. This is about the death of the spirit of the 60’s, as idealism crumbled against the relentless claws of business and inhumanity. The bright shining moment of the title is the one last big thing that might have shifted circumstances for the better.
One Bright Shining Moment begins with a montage of politicians of the present, on both sides of the aisle, lying through their teeth about various and sundry things. It then flashes back, suggesting that it all comes back to 1972. Not that that election was somehow the genesis of political shadiness, but that it was the last major stand of something decent against the machine. It’s a conclusion you can easily disagree with (I’m not fully with it), but the doc makes its case quite well.