Despite the imprimatur of a respected newsman, 1968 with Tom Brokaw feels more like educational material for a high school classroom than a full-length documentary. It tries to explore the social fissures that were tearing America apart in the 1960s through recent interviews and archival footage, but in the end the documentary refuses to draw any conclusions about the meaning or lasting impact of the seminal events of 1968.
Maybe the scope of this topic is just too big to tackle in 90 minutes; it’s impossible to really discuss 1968 without examining a number of overlapping social revolutions – the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the drug culture, anti-war protests, the sexual revolution, countercultural art and music – that threatened to erase the status quo over the course of the decade.
1968 at least starts out with a slightly more personal focus. Brokaw talks about his own experiences growing up in the ‘60s, and admits that he tried to enlist in the military during the early years of the Vietnam War, long before public sentiment turned against the war. He describes his friendship with a Marine fighter pilot named Gene Kimmel, and stands at Gene’s grave as he remembers being told in October of 1968 that his friend had been killed when his plane was shot down.
This section on Vietnam is the most cohesive part of the documentary, and it benefits from quality interviews with people who had wildly different experiences of the war. Jeffry House was a draft dodger who fled to Canada; when Brokaw interviews him today, he’s a lawyer in Toronto helping army deserters who don’t want to be shipped back to Iraq. Brokaw also talks with a husband and wife who were brought together by the Vietnam War: he was a soldier who had his leg amputated after being shot, and she was the nurse who took care of him. There’s a poignant scene where they visit a military hospital today to offer words of encouragement to the wounded soldiers.
But once Brokaw moves beyond the Vietnam War, the interviews aren’t nearly as compelling. Bruce Springsteen, folk singer Arlo Guthrie, and comedian Lewis Black share their memories of life in the ‘60s, but their segments lack any larger historical context and amount to little more than recollections of what they were doing at the time. Even more disappointing, there’s hardly any insight into what it felt like for the average person living during the ‘60s, those who were touched by its social changes but weren’t rushing off to join a commune.
Former Nixon speechwriter and conservative pundit Pat Buchanan mocks the student protestors as self-destructive slackers who were despised by Middle America, and says that 1968 was “probably the worst year in this nation’s history”’, whereas singer Michelle Phillips remembers the era as a paradise of free love and harmless drugs. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Ironically, it takes Daily Show host Jon Stewart – only five years old in 1968 – to point out that the anti-war protest against Vietnam was galvanized by the draft and by diligent reporting of the war which was reflected in bloody, uncensored television coverage. By contrast, the current war in Iraq has faded into the background noise of debate in the US, thanks to an all-volunteer army and politicians who have a much better grasp of how to shape public opinion (if only their tactical planning and military intelligence was as good). As a result, pulling US troops out of Iraq has become just another issue on the liberal-conservative spectrum, one that seemingly many Americans don’t feel any immediate pressure to resolve.
1968 with Tom Brokaw is filled with revealing moments, both big and small, that show just how much – and how little—things have changed. Videos of the student protests at Columbia University, which shut down the campus for a week in April of 1968, show a widespread passion and determination that are hard to imagine in today’s anti-war demonstrations. A brief clip of Tom Brokaw on the nightly news has him sitting at a plain desk in front of a cheap cardboard map of Vietnam—technologically a million miles away from the intricate sets and slick charts and graphics of contemporary news. And while hippies were seen at the time as menaces to society by the hard Right and as revolutionaries by the radical Left, today they just look hopelessly goofy. Listen to one bearded, squinty-eyed fellow as he tries to explain life in a commune: “(We think) people have been living inside squares for too many years. We’d like to get inside a circle.” Cue stock footage of people sitting down around a campfire.
Even more ambiguous and harder to detect are the subtle trends that have stayed the same over the years. Richard Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In was an early example of a politician embracing pop culture in order to improve his image; you can see that echoed today with Barack Obama guest starring on Saturday Night Live and Chuck Norris endorsing Mike Huckabee for President. Likewise, when Nixon was elected President he insisted that the first and most important goal of his administration would be to unite the nation. Thus, not only do we see how long the cultural wars of America have been going on for, but Nixon’s speech also highlights the use of “unity” as a political buzzword that doesn’t necessarily include compromise with the other side.
It’s telling that the documentary doesn’t identify the nationality (Palestinian) or motives of the man who killed Robert F. Kennedy. 1968 with Tom Brokaw is more concerned with the bare facts of what happened during that eventful year than seeing the big picture. For all the discussion of the social revolutions of the ‘60s, nobody hits on the biggest difference between then and now: there is no counterculture anymore, or more accurately, there are a million different countercultures, each occupying their own separate corner of our media-saturated world.
Before the Internet or the advent of thousands of different satellite radio stations and television channels, young Americans constricted by the mainstream culture had to find each other and they rallied around the social changes that offered them a way out of their faceless, consumerist society. For better or worse, what the ‘60s truly offered was a sense of community that we may never have again.
Special features include extra footage from Brokaw’s interviews and from his own recollections on growing up in the ‘60s.