Judge Kristin Munson suggests that if you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair—so people there will know which poor, dirty saps aren't worth mugging.
"If I were to pick a time in the whole history of man in which to live and a place in which to live, it would the United States in 1968. This is the time, this is the place, and never forget it."—Richard Nixon
1968 with Tom Brokaw is a double-length History Channel special that tries to be equal parts educational documentary, sensational news magazine, and social commentary; ultimately, it is none of the above.
Facts of the Case
In August of 1968, anti-war protestors stood outside the Chicago Democratic Convention chanting, "The whole world is watching," which didn't stop police from descending on the crowd with tear gas and night sticks. From political assassinations to presidential elections, the horrors of 'Nam to the heights of space exploration, violent protests to peace signs at love-ins, the whole world really was watching the United States in '68, and it wasn't pretty.
If 1968 with Tom Brokaw were an essay, it would be handed back to the author with the word "focus" written in bold red ink and underlined several times. What begins as a month-by-month exploration of '68 wanders off on tangents that spin into digressions, and by the time it finally returns to the calendar format, you've forgotten what month it is and who some of these people are. This, ladies and gentleman, is why you're not supposed to take the brown acid.
As the author of Boom!: Voice of the Sixties, as well as being a young reporter that year, Tom Brokaw makes an excellent host, but when it comes to the on-camera interviews, he doesn't bring much to the table. When Rafer Johnson, who worked for Robert Kennedy and wrestled the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan, tells of finding the murder weapon in his coat pocket the next morning, Brokaw's only contribution is "Wow." Other interviews feel unnecessary and emotionally manipulative, as well as out of place in a history documentary, like following a Vietnam nurse and amputee veteran into a rehabilitation unit for soldiers injured in Iraq, or putting together a police officer and a protester present at the Chicago riot, just so we can watch them argue. This is stuff I expects to see on Dateline or 48 Hours, not The History Channel.
Ninety minutes is not a lot of time to dissect an entire year, especially one as tumultuous as '68, which makes some of the doc's editorial choices seem downright odd. In addition to the misguided interviews, huge chunks of time are devoted to making "then" and "now" comparisons, always at the expense of "then." The escalating Civil Rights movement gets coverage right up through 2007, but the program skims only the most radical parts of the feminist movement and skips Stonewall entirely. Historical tragedies like the My Lai massacre are passed over in favor of cultural trivia like the Broadway debut of "Hair."
Don't expect to actually hear any selections from "Hair" with those clips, or any other signature '60s tunes, for that matter; the original TV soundtrack has been replaced by a generic one. Stripping a time partly defined by its musical revolution of protest songs, folk anthems, and psychedelic pop is a severe handicap, one only exacerbated by swapping in riffs that sound almost like "House of the Rising Sun" or sort of like "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The replacements become a distraction that pulls you out of the story and into a game of Name That Derivative Tune, and what few original tracks remain stick out like a flower child at a meeting of the Young Republicans. I can't understand why The History Channel didn't arrange song rights for both the broadcast and the DVD when the two come only months apart. It couldn't be the expense, because every night around 4 a.m., Time Life is on the television offering to sell me 10 CDs of the stuff for the low low price of $149.95.
In addition to the crippled soundtrack, the DVD also features the standard television 2.0 stereo mix and a non-anamorphic widescreen picture, with quality that varies along with the age of the film stock. The "Tom Brokaw Personal Perspective" advertised on the features listing turns out to be three meager snippets culled from a larger interview, and there are more bits of conversations from the likes of Arlo Guthrie and Jon Stewart. All these extras have the same problem: they cut in and cut off too closely, clipping the beginning and ending of words, and sport an annoying History Channel station identification unless you use the Play All function.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The sixties in general are a completely fascinating decade, if only in a train-wreck kind of way. The nation was an incredibly screwed-up, scary place where absolutely anything could happen at any time (and usually did). The large amounts of period footage may be grainy and damaged, but they're also raw, chaotic, visceral, and more emotionally affecting than any moment the program attempts to manufacture. Following the RFK assassination from the ballroom victory speech to the anguished screams and confused moments after the shooting, to film recorded from within the funeral train of saluting veterans and flag-waving children, captures the year's roller-coaster feeling better than any narrative or retrospective interview.
The main problem with 1968 with Tom Brokaw is that it tries to cram too many things into too little time, resulting in a Cliffs Notes version of history with a heavy dusting of "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Luckily, those who do not learn from The History Channel have other options available. The scattershot nature of the documentary offers you a taste of '68, but very little meat.
Guilty Daddy-O, the whole world won't be watching this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Tom Brokaw's Personal Perspective
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