Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of those supreme American figures who made looking like a creature of contradiction seem the quintessential way to be. His contradictions were luminous, larger-than-life, and he wore them with a tall, puckishly smiling Irish pride. He carried himself like a patrician — the bow tie, the mop of gray hair falling into his eyes, the preternaturally precise diction — but, in fact, Moynihan grew up in Hell’s Kitchen during the Depression. (He devoted much of his public service to eradicating poverty because he’d known the sting of it.) He was a wonkishly effusive Ivy League academic, but he relished the hurly-burly of combat politics. He was a liberal Democrat who, in 1969, went to work for Richard Nixon (against the furious protests of his wife and many others). If he could have surveyed the perilous divisions that define American politics today, he would have said something like, “How did you forget that you’re all on the same side?”

“Moynihan,” produced and directed by Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich, is a documentary that takes the full, fascinating measure of the charismatic maverick that Moynihan was. Yet the movie, surprisingly, offers barely a glimpse into the details of his personal life. You can sit through “Moynihan” and come out with no idea how many kids he had, what sort of house he lived in, what his hobbies were, or — with the exception of one brief reference by Trent Lott to how a sip of whisky could heighten the edge of Moynihan’s rhetoric — what sort of alcohol he favored, and how much of it. I raise the latter issue not because I was pining for gossip (though in a documentary portrait, who isn’t?) but because it’s well-known that Moynihan liked to drink, and why wouldn’t we want to hear a few details about that? There’s a wisp of an anecdote about how he held meetings, during his 1976 New York senate campaign, at a smelly midtown bar that everyone else found deplorable, but that story just raises the issue: Off the political stage, what sort of guy was Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

You’ll have to wait for another documentary to answer that one. But “Moynihan,” by concentrating exclusively on its subject’s political career, as well as his life of the mind, captures his inspiring singularity as a mainstream political gadfly. Moynihan won that senate campaign, incidentally. And though he served as senator from New York for the next 25 years, the movie shows us how his extraordinary qualities were rooted in the place America was in the 1960s and ’70s: a less advanced society, but also a more open and inquiring one, in which the social contract — the spirit of fellow feeling — was taken for granted.

You get a dramatic sense of how different the country was then when you hear about Moynihan’s Nixon period. As the head of the Council of Urban Affairs, Moynihan brought in no less than Bruno Bettelheim as a consultant, and the result of their work is that Nixon established the first Office of Early Child Development within HUD. Moynihan also wrote the first memo on global warming — in 1969! — and that memo was one of the key reasons that the Nixon administration became active about environmental issues. It’s enough to make you want to stop fretting about Watergate.

I exaggerate, but the point is that Nixon, in addition to being a scoundrel, was a statesman who enacted what we would now call “liberal” policies because he believed in them. He certainly believed in them enough to keep someone like Moynihan around as his guiding light. Many on the left felt that they’d been betrayed by Moynihan, who in some circles carried the tag of “neoconservative” for the rest of his career. But that was just reductive pigeonholing. He was a grand architect of government programs to help the disenfranchised, and the fact that he wasn’t doctrinaire about it, and was more than eager to work with the other side, is exactly what was needed.

The debate over how to characterize Moynihan went back, of course, to his creation of the Moynihan Report in 1965. He’d originally been tapped by John F. Kennedy, the first president to raid academia; it was an idealistic moment when government was going to draw on higher knowledge to solve problems. Moynihan worked for JFK and then President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it was for LBJ’s eyes only that he delivered his famous investigation of inner-city poverty, which traced the problems in African-American life to the breakdown of families.

The report was never meant for public consumption, but when it got out there it became controversial, because while a number of black leaders supported Moynihan’s conclusions, the more radical leaders did not; they thought he was doing a subtle version of blaming the victim. The movie reveals that he got a call from no less than Martin Luther King Jr., who privately voiced support of the Moynihan Report but said that he wasn’t able to do so publicly. Viewing it now, with half a century’s hindsight, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates defends the report, calling it “the last point where you had a federal official making an argument — an implicit argument — for massive benevolent investment in African-American communities, and tying that case for investment to history. That is something that just wouldn’t happen today.”

There were times when Moynihan’s devotion to speaking his mind embroiled him in contradictions that surpassed his ability to control them. In 1975, when he was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, we see him make a righteous, headline-grabbing speech to the General Assembly denouncing the Zionism-is-racism idea that had begun to percolate through the rhetoric of a number of U.N. members. It was Moynihan at his most sternly moralistic, attacking the evils of anti-Semitism, his rhetoric washed in the powers of take-no-prisoners absolutism.

Not long after that, the movie shows us a clip in which the view that Moynihan had argued before the U.N. gets endorsed by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, as an example of speaking right-wing truth to power. And what had made Reagan’s endorsement possible was Moynihan’s willingness to leave the Palestinian issue on the back burner. Moynihan, as much as his Nixon cabinet colleague Henry Kissinger, remained a product of the world order he had come out of. He wasn’t necessarily crusading for a new one.

Yet within those strictures, he was bold, he wore his compassion on his lapel, and his mind remained open. Moynihan always stood for breaking down party lines and reaching across the aisle, because the aisle, in his hardheaded idealistic view, was a false idea. He saw government as an arena of possibility and problem-solving, and so he had no patience for those who were caught up in the pettiness of party politics. “Moynihan” gives that impulse the thoughtful salute it deserves, and leaves you yearning for a way to bring it back.

Film Review: ‘Moynihan’

Reviewed at Film Forum, Oct. 2, 2017. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: A First Run Features release of a Riverside Films, Framework Films, Just Films, Ford Foundation production. Producers: Joseph Dorman, Toby Perl Freilich.
  • Crew: Directors: Joseph Dorman, Toby Perl Freilich. Screenplay: Joseph Dorman. Camera (color, widescreen): Roger Grange. Editor: Aaron Kuhn. Music: Mason Daring.
  • With: Jeffrey Wright, George Will, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Henry Kissinger, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz.