It’s a good bet Barry Goldwater would have never imagined a film portrait such as “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater” being the one likely to seal him in the public’s imagination. The personal and confessional tone of “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater” — stemming from granddaughter CC’s direct involvement as producer, interviewer and narrator — would have made the non-touchy-feely late senator fidget. Pic reflects on a contempo religious GOP right wing that would have profoundly alienated Goldwater, who rarely brought God into his politics. This fascinating, if hardly complete, look at a distinct American politician airs Sept. 18 on HBO, after some fest whistle-stops.
Journalist Robert MacNeil’s observation that “Goldwater was complicated” sets the tone for a project, directed by vet tube documaker Julie Anderson, which tries to get beyond the facade of the hardline hawk. This was the image Goldwater proudly projected when running against Lyndon B. Johnson for the U.S. presidency in 1964, and that he allowed Johnson to underline, leading to a thorough trouncing at the polls.
As witness to his personal and political lives, CC appears to be in a good position to describe the complex man, and is more than willing to lay out his weaknesses and strengths. With editor Juliet Weber, Anderson structures the bio as two intercut parallel stories — one of the political animal, the other of the family man.
On one hand, there’s the Arizonan’s rise to fame in the state and within the beleaguered Republican right, his whopping 1964 defeat and his long career as a senior senator who ended up bridging the parties as a statesman. On the other is his family life, his dynamo mother, wife Peggy and his children — some of whom pour out their emotions on camera.
It’s this second aspect that distinguishes “Mr. Conservative” from the usual tube-financed political bio doc and reveals some of the contradictions of Goldwater, who opposed expansion of civil rights for African-Americans in the ’60s and — as various family anecdotes illustrate — was tolerant toward gays and lesbians as well as female reproductive rights. (Daughter Joanne tells of her abortion as a young woman, and gay grandson Ty speaks warmly of him.)
Even with an impressive roster of journos and political sharpies (including Hillary Clinton, who was a Goldwater Girl in ’64 and a devout conservative in her teens), little is made of libertarian Goldwater’s differences with the right-wing Christian movement that swept into the GOP in the 1980s. John Dean, whose new book, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” began as a collaboration with longtime friend Goldwater, articulates best how Goldwater’s straight-talking politics was rejected by his Bush-era party.
Goldwater’s contradictions are felt starkly in several interview segments with Joanne and son Barry Jr. and in asides with CC, who all regret their father was often too busy for them. Homemovie clips (all lensed by Goldwater, who first gained a rep in Arizona as a filmmaker capturing the state’s wilderness and was a fine photog of Hopi and Navajo tribespeople) offer a far warmer view of a loving, generous dad.
Response to the pic from GOP pundits and opinionmakers will provide a telling indicator of the current political climate. Walter Cronkite overstates the case that the older Goldwater turned liberal, while George Will is more on point, noting that what changed wasn’t Goldwater but the GOP’s extreme shift toward moralistic conservatism.
Doc contains a fine balance of personal talking-heads segments with rare archive footage, such as behind-the-scenes footage of Goldwater and family during the ’64 GOP convention.