'Moynihan': Film Review

A vivid portrait of the sort of politician we desperately need today.
10/3/2018

Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich's documentary recounts the life and varied political career of the man who served four terms as a U.S. senator.

That we need a politician like Daniel Patrick Moynihan more than ever is made clear by his most famous quote: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." The four-term New York senator was an intellectual, not an ideologue, who was respected by his colleagues even when they disagreed with him. In this political era in which expertise and thoughtfulness are considered negative traits, his life and career deserve significant attention and reappraisal. Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich's documentary Moynihan, receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum, admirably fulfills that goal. 

Despite his patrician air and ever-present bow tie, Moynihan actually had a hardscrabble upbringing. He grew up in NYC's Hell's Kitchen, raised by a single mother after his father abandoned the family during the Depression. His impoverished background helped fuel his intense interest in finding ways to help the poor, a theme that would resound through his political career. It was during his time working for Lyndon Johnson that he wrote what would become known as "The Moynihan Report," a controversial document that largely blamed urban poverty on the prevalence of single-parent households in the African-American community. 

Despite his liberal politics, Moynihan became a domestic advisor to Richard Nixon, a career choice that appalled many of his friends and colleagues, not to mention his wife Elizabeth. During his tenure, he helped create the Family Assistance Plan to provide direct assistance to families in need. But the planned welfare reform, bitterly opposed by conservatives, failed in the Senate.

One of the most controversial aspects of Moynihan's career was his leaked memo about race relations in which he advised a policy of "benign neglect." The phrase was widely seen as Moynihan suggesting that the government not deal with racial issues, an interpretation which he firmly denied.

Moynihan served as both ambassador to India and then the United Nations. His feisty demeanor in the latter position — marked by his passionate defense of Israel and his condemnation of Uganda's Idi Amin as a "racist murderer," among other things — earned him great popularity. He was elected to the Senate in 1976 and served for 24 years. Among those singing his praises in the film are such congressional colleagues as Joe Biden, Bob Kerry, Bill Bradley and Trent Lott. "He was interested in the art of the possible," Lott says. Conservative writer George Will, a longtime friend of Moynihan's, points out, "He leavened the place with a sense of complexity." That Moynihan's Senate staff continues to hold annual reunions (we see footage of one) is a testament to his likability.

Moynihan was a political figure of great complexity, so much so that he was embraced at different times by both liberals and neo-conservatives (he hated the latter designation). Although his attempt at welfare reform in the 1970s failed, his ideas did not, with the doc making the case that the earned income tax credit, which has done so much to alleviate poverty, is largely an outgrowth of his efforts.

Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, Moynihan does fall a little short in its too brief recounting of its subject's lengthy tenure in the Senate. Similarly, viewers won't find too much information about his personal life. Despite these minor failings, what does emerge is a vivid portrait of a brilliant and multi-faceted man of ideas who charmed his enemies as well as his friends. The recent Kavanaugh hearing debacle makes you wish that the film was on a permanent loop in the halls of Congress.

Distributor: First Run Features
Directors-producers: Joseph Dornan, Toby Perl Freilich
Screenwriter: Joseph Dornan
Executive producer: Andrew Karsch
Director of photography: Roger Grange
Editor: Aaron Kuhn
Composer: Mason Daring

104 minutes