Oh, the Sixties, the Sixties! Oh my lord, the Sixties.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Some of you kids are probably sick to death of hearing about them, "Mad Men" notwithstanding, but as decades go, it is a hard one to beat for violent social upheaval, radical cultural change and 21/2 -minute pop songs.
And as long as there are folks alive who remember those famous days and years, you will hear about them again. The latest case in point is the clearly titled "The Sixties," a 10-part documentary series from producers Tom Hanks (who remembers them, though he will stand in history for later decades) and Gary Goetzman that begins Thursday on CNN.
Two episodes were released earlier to coincide with 50-year anniversaries — "The Assassination of President Kennedy" in November and "The British Invasion" in February, marking half a century since the Beatles hit America — but they are returning to take up their places in the squadron. There are episodes on Vietnam, civil rights, the space race and the counterculture. Horrible 1968 gets a whole hour to itself, and rightly so.
Much of this ground has been well-trod, not to say trampled. With three very different presidents, assassinations, riots, men on the moon, a sense that everything was not only at stake but also imminent — the nuclear apocalypse or the flower-powered dawning age of Aquarius, with its golden living dreams of visions and mystic crystal revelations — the decade was mythologized even as it was still unrolling.
I've seen four episodes — the previously released Beatles and Kennedy hours, along with "Television Comes of Age" (the usual shorthand for "the president was shot and everyone turned on their TV") and "The World on the Brink," about the Cold War in the Kennedy administration. The historical documentaries are more successful than the cultural ones, for having a better story to tell, but all are made in a similar style, without written narration, driven by news clips and interviews (with scholars, participants and celebrity rememberers, Hanks naturally included).
"Television Comes of Age" feels thin, despite the voices of authority, including Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett, Diahann Carroll, Jerry Mathers, Carl Reiner and Tom and Dick Smothers, who are also its subjects; a clutch of TV critics; and "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan (born 1967). Their comments move the story along, but running at sound-bite length, they provide what amounts to only a series of topic sentences; nothing of substance develops.
The gist of it is that the decade's television was serious in new ways, but also that it was silly in new ways; that it became more vigorously a purveyor of and participant in news ("The whole world is watching," quoth the protesting young in the streets of Chicago). And it was in color.
"The British Invasion," concerning the Beatles and the other U.K. bands that rushed in through the hole they blasted in the domestic consciousness, is less scattered and has a good beat, but it remains essentially inessential, an exercise in slightly scholarly nostalgia. (Some younger viewers may be interested to learn that British bands imported American R&B back to U.S. teenagers, but more may feel they have been dragged to an oldies bill at the county fair.) It runs off topic a little (Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, James Brown), even as it leaves out the fact that there was more to the British Invasion than music.
The Cold War and Kennedy assassination episodes are by contrast excellent — involving, enlightening, crisply immediate. As news stories — or collections of news stories — they profit from a wealth of clips, and not always the obvious ones, smartly ordered for maximum meaning and narrative impact. The former is a good primer on the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the evolving thinking of Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
"The Assassination of President Kennedy," which continues past the killing to the conspiracy theories and the sad adventures of Jim Garrison, makes perhaps the most minutely examined, and reexamined, and reexamined passage in American history feel vertiginously present. (I have seen roughly a thousand documentaries on this subject, and in the moment, at least, this felt like the best — not the most thorough, but the most alive.) You imagine, even as you watch, that there is still a chance that things might have worked out differently. But they didn't, and so we have "The Sixties."