In terms of social upheaval, few years in modern American history can rival 1968. It was a year marked by anger, violence, massive protest and assassination, spurring political and cultural reverberations still felt today. 1968 with Tom Brokaw, a History Channel documentary, offers a compact review of a turbulent period that conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, echoing the sentiments of many, calls "probably the worst year in this nation's history."
Venerable television news journalist Brokaw, after having extolled the virtues of the Greatest Generation, trains his sights on baby boomers with this documentary made in conjunction with his book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today. It's an ambitious film, but Brokaw hits the essentials in its 90-minute running time and subtly weaves narrative threads from the surfeit of information.
The Vietnam War loomed over most aspects of American life. Early in the year, North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet offensive against targets throughout South Vietnam. While Tet fizzled as a military campaign, it nevertheless proved to be a powerfully demoralizing blow to Americans. In its aftermath, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite declared the war unwinnable and President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek a second term in office. The year proved to be the war's bloodiest, resulting in an estimated 16,500 deaths.
But 1968 was bloody stateside, as well. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fell to an assassin's bullet April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. The slaying sparked race riots across the nation and helped fuel the militant Black Panther movement. Two months after King's death, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated shortly after winning California's Democratic presidential primary. His murder also temporarily halted the antiwar campaign of U.S. Rep. Eugene McCarthy, a move that eventually forestalled his Quixotic candidacy.
"The counterculture was rapidly becoming the popular culture," Brokaw narrates as he leads viewers through the maelstrom of events that swept America in the spring and summer of '68. Droves of hippies converged on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, clashing with baton-wielding police while protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching." The nation certainly watched. The televised images from violence in the streets (and even on the convention floor) had devastating implications for the Democratic Party.
Helping ground the documentary in personal experience, Brokaw offers some anecdotes from his own life and interviews a range of people who played key roles in events of that year. There are plenty of pithy observations from celebrities -- Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart, James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie, comedian Lewis Black and many more -- but the most affecting are those interview subjects who were on the front lines of the turmoil in 1968. That includes a doctor who operated the free clinic in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, a Chicago police officer and a Vietnam draft evader who is now a Toronto-based attorney representing Iraq War soldiers.
In the end, 1968 with Tom Brokaw is informative and interesting, but its encyclopedic approach renders it a little emotionally detached. The documentary is most tantalizing when it connects the dots between the Americas of 1968 and 2008. Brokaw makes a convincing argument that today's political polarization had its roots in 1968's tight presidential contest between Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. Thanks a lot, '68.
The picture, in full-frame 1.33:1, has the solid, if unremarkable, look of television news. Lines and details are clean and clear, with no noticeable defects. Much of the archival footage is in very good shape.
The 2.0 audio mix is sharp and clear. No complaints.
Tom Brokaw's Personal Perspectives has three components: "The 60's Remembered," "Tom's 1960's" and "The Music." The interview clips are mildly interesting and boast an aggregate length of four minutes, 12 seconds.
The disc also offers additional interviews (13:16) with Andrew Young, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Rafer Johnson, Tommy Smothers, Mark Rudd and Jon Stewart, all of whom appear in the documentary. Viewers can select individual interviews or opt to play all.
As a historical overview, 1968 with Tom Brokaw does a fine job distilling one of the most tumultuous times in modern-day America. The piece is interesting and -- while there are no great revelations -- Brokaw deftly shows how many of the events that year led to certain political and cultural realities of 2008.