The subtitle to the History Channel's 1968 With Tom Brokaw DVD sounds like typical television hyperbole combined with the sort of self-aggrandizement that brings out the worst in baby boomers:
"The Year That Everything Changed."
Really, in one year, everything changed? Everything?
Of course it's a catchy line and a bit over the top, but the idea's not that far off the mark. In America at least, things did change dramatically and the reverberations are still being felt 40 years later. The next time you hear someone try to compare 2008 to the intense turmoil of 1968 when the country seemed to be unraveling with war, race riots, and assassinations, consider that there are really only two things similar:
The U.S. is in an unpopular war and it's a presidential election year. After that, pretty much everything is different.
•In 1968 alone, 16,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War. Almost 4,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq over the past six years.
•During the Democratic primary, there were wild riots in Chicago and the party was deeply divided over the war. By contrast, Barack Obama says he and Hillary Clinton are in agreement on "95 percent" of their health care policies and a particularly nasty exchange between the two centers on who might have cribbed a couple of lines from someone else's speech. Hardly high political drama.
•Young people in 1968 were far more politically active and engaged in protesting the war and criticizing the establishment. They marched against the draft, were involved in the civil rights movement, and were jazzed up on ideas and drugs. Now, Jay Leno gets his yuks cornering 20-somethings on the street and tripping them up with tricky questions like, "Who's the vice president?"
•And the entire pop culture was wired on wildly creative music, cutting-edge television shows such as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and controversial movies like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, pop culture is so diverse and inward-looking that it feels diluted and unfocused.
Brokaw, the veteran newsman, tries to sort all this out on the DVD released Tuesday. It's a commercial-free version of the two-hour special that aired last year on the History Channel, clocking in at 94 minutes in real time. (A few extra interview segments are thrown in, none of them too enlightening.)
Which isn't enough. There was just too much going in 1968 to break it down into one episode, and the year would best be approached with five two-hour documentaries that explore this fascinating time in much more detail. 1968 With Tom Brokaw ($24.95) is ultimately just a frustrating tease for anyone who is a true history buff. Call it history-lite.
The first person interviewed in the documentary is Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's popular The Daily Show. Jon Stewart? The guy's only 45 years old; what does he know about 1968? Then we have Bruce Springsteen, who turns out to be pretty interesting, but he isn't someone we generally associate with the 1960s. And Brokaw, as mumbly-mouthed as ever, begins leading us through the year, making connections that work - Stewart's topical humor is presented as the natural comedic progression from the Smothers Brothers - and others that don't.
It's best when people just talk. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon in 1968, makes some particularly cogent points. So does folkie Arlo Guthrie, civil rights pioneer Andrew Young, and even Springsteen, who is especially interesting when he talks about being a "faux hippie" who was stuck between the counterculture and his working class roots.
Then Brokaw interrupts to talk about himself. He talks about an old buddy who was killed in Vietnam. He shows footage of himself at Haight Ashbury. He talks about how he felt back in the day.
And what I want to know is exactly what did the Tet Offensive accomplish? How did the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., forever change politics in this country? When the black U.S. Olympians thrust their fists into the air during the medal ceremonies in Mexico, what did that say about race relations in sports? How could a racist like George Wallace muster a serious presidential campaign?
Brokaw skips merrily along, showing riveting footage of the riots, the heated political exchanges, and the war before moving on to another issue without ever giving you enough of what he was just talking about. Ultimately 1968 With Tom Brokaw doesn't do the History Channel justice as it skims the surface of far more interesting issues, telling us nothing we didn't already know.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org
Following is a partial schedule of coming movies on DVD. Release dates are subject to change: