American Experience: 1964 [Import]
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American Experience: 1964
Based on The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, by award-winning journalist Jon Margolis, this film follows some of the most prominent figures of the time, and bring out from the shadows the actions of ordinary Americans whose frustrations, ambitions, and anxieties began to turn the country onto a different course.
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As for the documentary itself, we had low expectations. In recent years, previously excellent shows like NOVA and Frontline have turned into infotainment that skims the surface. Breathless commentary and gee-whiz special effects replace information and science.
However, American Experience: 1964 was just great. There's plenty of film from the time, and lots of people who have vivid memories of the year are interviewed. In this show, we hear from Hodding Carter, Todd Gitlin, Stephanie Coontz, Phyllis Schlafly, Jann Wenner, Jon Margolis, Rick Perlstein, Robert Dallek, Robert Caro, Mark Kurlansky, and more. Presented in a roughly chronological sequence, it starts with New Year in Times Square, only weeks after JFK was assassinated. Weeks later, the Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. From tragedy to giddiness, to tragedy again, as the Civil Rights debate, simmering all along, starts boiling over when Lyndon Johnson makes it his priority.
Hearing from historians and biographers helps put things in perspective, but the testimony from some who were there is what makes you realize how people felt at the time. One civil rights organizer, Dave Dennis, recalls the moment when he moved from calling for peaceful change to calling for change at any price. It's powerful, and the fact that there is film to document his moment of evolution is riveting.
Barry Goldwater, Betty Friedan, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, the Harlem Riots, Bewitched, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the Gulf of Tonkin and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, it's all in here, and arranged and edited so that it makes as much sense as a two hour review of a single year can. It could have been a hodgepodge of sights and sounds, but it comes across as a milestone year, musically, politically, socially.
Even if you were there, you will learn something from this well thought out documentary of a year that is still resonating.
I did think that on the whole it tilted a bit to the left. I support many liberal causes, but I was disappointed that this show wasn't more objective. The documentary made it seem like the only people doing anything significant in 1964 were heroic freedom-fighting liberals and right-wing reactionary racist extremists. This could give the viewer a distorted view of history. Were there any moderates or non-extreme conservatives doing anything worthwhile then? How about a-political people? Artists, writers, scholars, scientists, engineers, others?
Most of the people interviewed seemed to look back to the 1960s with fond nostalgia. That's certainly the note the documentary closed on. I am sympathetic to the many gains we made with civil rights, etc. But personally I think the 60s also started some lamentable trends with terrible consequences - working moms, sexual immorality, individualism at the expense of community, etc. I admire the hippies for seeking something better, but in my opinion in many cases they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Not everything about the 1950s was bad.
Overall, I highly recommend this show. I will show it to my kids.
If you liked this documentary, then American Experience: LBJ is a nice compliment. It tells more about Johnson and how things went later in the decade.
I didn't know this before, but another reviewer pointed out that the Republicans overwhelmingly supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Wikipedia backs up that claim:
Southern politicians, both Republican and Democrat, were the only ones that opposed it.
I know the political parties were different then. But this confirms my feeling that this documentary is tilted toward the progressive side of the story.
I watched this a second time several months later and it didn't seem nearly as biased toward the left this time. If you have to present the most important happenings of this period in a short doc like this, then this seemed to do that well. I enjoyed it the second time as much as the first. Enjoy might not be the right word - some awful things happened - but at least my brain enjoyed being so well informed.
It would start of course with Vice President Lyndon Johnson suddenly now the new President and inherits all the important issues that President Kennedy has had to deal with. The biggest domestic issue would be civil rights that would come to the fore front in the country in 1964. With resistance in the south among the politicians to even bring a vote for equal rights to the senate. The documentary does a very good job of showing just how Johnson would go about getting the votes he needed to get the bill passed. He was able to get the votes in a way that Kennedy could never have and it would certainly show the greatest moment in President Johnson's term as he got the 1964 Equal Rights Act passed. Of course the documentary also looks at the early beginnings of what would become Lyndon Johnson's downfall as President as he would draw the country into the Vietnam war beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
As for the civil rights movement itself "1964" looks at the freedom riders and what they would face as they came in buses from the north to the south and how they would prepare for it. It of course covers the murder of the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi and the emotional impact it brought on the nation at its brutality.
The program also does an excellent job at looking at the beginnings of the conservative movement that would take over the republican party with the nomination of Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President in 1964. It also looks at the beginnings of the women's movement towards women's rights that was started by Betty Freidan with her book "The Feminine Mystic".
There are more lighthearted moments as well covered by this documentary as it remembers the beginning of the British invasion with the appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and during their stay in the U.S. including getting to meet Cassius Clay shortly before his fight against Sonny Liston for the boxing heavyweight title as well as that fight itself and Clay's finally announcing his conversion to the Islamic faith and change of name to Mohammed Ali.
This is an outstand documentary looking at one important year in the history of our country. There were other important years in our history but "1964" is an excellent presentation of how one year in the United States history would change us as a country.
An uninformed viewer would come away believing that if not for Lyndon Johnson's skillful arm twisting, Republican's in Congress would have thwarted the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when in fact, Republican support was overwhelming (over 80% in both chambers), whereas Democratic support was a bit more tepid (69% Senate-63% House). The film skillfully implied the exact opposite.
And while the film is focused primary on the racial struggles of this time, it conveniently leaves out any mention of 1964 Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace, who was the very face of racial hatred and pro-segregation fervor? An innocent oversight, I'm sure.
These are but two examples of a mindset that pervades this film. It'll probably be a long stretch before I watch another PBS "documentary".