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Review: ‘Moynihan,’ a sterling portrait of a singular American statesman

Review: ‘Moynihan,’ a sterling portrait of a singular American statesman
Daniel Patrick Moynihan at his desk, Pindars Corners, N.Y., c. 1979, from the documentary "Moynihan." (Moynihan Family)

Falsely branded as both a neoliberal and a neoconservative, Daniel Patrick Moynihan managed to regularly tick off everyone, so he must have been doing something right. The crisp, engaging documentary “Moynihan,” directed by Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich, paints a picture of the dapper, erudite Democrat, who died in 2003, as a series of dichotomies that merged to create one of the staunchest defenders of the poor that America has ever seen.

Oklahoma-born, New York City-bred; dock worker, Naval officer; bootstrap intellectual; Harvard urbanologist. “Pat” Moynihan was all these things and over a decades-long career in public service, including working under four consecutive presidents (JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford), ambassadorships to India and the United Nations and four terms as a U.S. senator from New York, he held to principles of government that he learned growing up hand-to-mouth in the Depression.

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Many politicians from upper-class backgrounds put on folksy airs to impress the electorate. Moynihan, on the other hand, developed a patrician manner that belied his roots but never lost the ability to connect with working-class voters. Interviews with Moynihan’s widow Elizabeth, writers George Will and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sens. Charles Schumer and Trent Lott, friends and scholars across the political spectrum reveal a man who brandished words as weapons and was occasionally tripped up and plagued by controversy due to his own blunt rhetoric.

An early adopter of data and a prolific and prescient writer (Will jokes that Moynihan authored more books than many of his senate colleagues had read), he once wrote, “Politics is an argument about the future.” Moynihan’s last term in the Senate (1995-2001) saw the political divisions that plagued the nation in the 1960s and ‘70s reach full-bore in Congress. One can only imagine what he would make of the current maelstrom.

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‘Moynihan’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 12, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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