“The Sixties,” which begins tonight at 9 and runs through Aug. 7, comes to us on CNN.
Many of us have been bombarded for decades by the images and sounds and personalities (and personal memories) of the 1960s. Here, what is familiar is made fresh.
The so-called “talking heads” that populate most documentaries are, in this series, the cream of the crop. Historians, journalists, former soldiers, eye witnesses to and participants in events — all offer pointed insight and first-hand knowledge. These voices, combined with rare and rarely seen film footage, a thoughtful soundtrack and perfectly orchestrated editing are able to give the series (I have screened the first four episodes available at press time) an impactful relevance.
The first episode is a feast of old TV clips that are pleasing in their ability to evoke memories. It might be a little much to hear that “The Andy Griffith Show” was marked by “emotional honesty” and “unexpected depth” and that “The Fugitive” was a “somber character study,” but these analyses are examples of how the series attempts to get beyond the obvious. It seeks depth and gets a lot of it here from Tom and Dick Smothers, whose variety show was deemed too rough for TV at the time.
It all begins with Hanks and his few words, and then we are in Chicago, at the first televised presidential debate (Kennedy vs. Nixon) in September 1960, in Studio One at Chicago’s WBBM-TV. That hour-long live broadcast changed politics forever, as candidates realized that rhetoric and ideas were less important than physical style and sound bites.
TV’s power was henceforth accepted, as was its ability to transport viewers to places as ludicrously gentle as “Gilligan’s Island” or as horrific as the killing fields of Vietnam.
Episode 2, “The World on the Brink,” focuses on the “perfect failure” and “calamity” that was the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the escalating nuclear tensions between the USSR and the U.S. that had people building bomb shelters in their yards and schoolchildren hiding under desks (a lot of good that would have done) in safety drills. We watch the Berlin Wall go up and faith in our politicians erode as they try to spin facts to their liking.