You can't accuse The History Channel of hyperbole; their new History Presents: The 60s Megaset certainly earns its name. It sprawls out over 14 discs, promising over 28 hours of content (I lost count, myself), and is a mammoth beast to hold in your hands and consider devouring. The good news about the set is that it is full of remarkable, well-produced, entertaining and informative documentaries. The bad news is that there's also a whole lot of filler in it.
The set a collection of stand-alone documentaries and 60s-related programs that originally aired on The History Channel; for the most part, the stand-alone docs are the stand-outs of the set. It gets off to a strong start with Tom Brokaw's King, a feature-length celebration of the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Slick and well-produced, the documentary boasts an impressive slate of interview subjects (everyone from King's contemporaries to modern politicians to admiring entertainers) and some terrific archival footage. The piece is also impressively thorough; it doesn't just hit the expected highlights, but follows King through all stops of his various campaigns.
Equally impressive is 1968 with Tom Brokaw, another well-made full-length doc, this one dealing specifically with that very turbulent year (the bloodiest of the Vietnam conflict). The war, the music, the assassinations, the Democratic National Convention--it is all there, along less-discussed but still important events like the Orangeburg massacre and the feminist protests at the Miss America protests. Brokaw also lets conservative voices like Dorothy Rabinowitz and Pat Buchanan weigh in, and even does some commenting of his own, with the help of vintage footage of his own reporting from Haight-Ashbury ("In this crowd," he remembers, "I was the freak"). 1968's only flaws are minor structural ones--it wanders a bit from topic to topic, and strains a little too hard to come up with analogous events and figures from today's culture.
Another highlight is LBJ and Vietnam: In The Eye of The Storm. This feature-length documentary is a personal look at the escalation of the Vietnam conflict as seen from President Johnson's perspective, a feat accomplished predominately through the use of recently unearthed recordings of LBJ's telephone calls. Those tapes are just plain fascinating, startlingly intimate and no-holds-barred, augmented by surprisingly skillful and low-key "recreations" (I'm usually not a fan of reenactments, but these are quite well-done). The resulting film is accessible, unusual, and intriguing.
Failure Is Not An Option is also quite solid, a 90-minute history of and tribute to the men of NASA Mission Control that is painstakingly detailed and nicely assembled. The film leans heavily on the reminisces of flight directors Chris Kraft and Gene Krantz (played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13), and their memories of that exciting time are admirably clear and rich with color. The archival footage is predictably awe-inspiring and the film itself has both a sense of respect and sense of humor about its subjects--I particularly enjoyed some good-natured ribbing about the nerdiness of the group, including a survey of who used a pocket protector.
The set's longest and most substantial program is JFK: A Presidency Revealed, a 2003 documentary in three parts, totaling 155 minutes. The program is laser-focused on his administration, with little in the way of background biography; it begins at his inauguration and much more of a political portrait than a personal one (excepting, of course, the salacious details about his affairs). Though interviews with biographers, contemporaries, and his brother Teddy, A Presidency Revealed details the Bay of Pigs, his conflicts with Khrushchev, the raising of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Freedom Riders. Its story is told through an impressive array of TV, news, and home movie clips, along with his own batch of recently unearthed tapes--phone calls, dictations, and private meetings, accompanied by the same tasteful recreations as the Johnson special. It is not a rose-colored portrait, but it is honest and captivating.
The set's final great doc is the simply-titled Hippies, a solid history of the late 60s as seen through the filter of the young people who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. The program begins with Hoffman's LSD experiments and hits the expected stops: Leary, Kesey, the Dead, communal living, the anti-war movement. We also touch upon the co-opting of the lifestyle, clothing, and message by popular culture, which smoothly transitions into Woodstock--an event that occurred within days of the Manson Family's murders, an event that most agree ended the hippie dream. Hippies is vivid and richly detailed, though narrator Peter Coyote's first-person voice-over is occasionally too personal for a news program.
Those six discs are reason enough to pick up the set--although, in all fairness, most of them are available separately. The trouble with the box is that it appears to have been assembled by the marketing folks rather than anyone in quality control; there is a haphazard quality to the compilation, with much of it far less interesting and some of it only tangentially related to the decade that the set is ostensibly about.
Vietnam on the Front Lines, for example, is a four-part examination of the military strategy of the war, and while it contains some valuable CBS archival footage of the conflict, its battle-by-battle, jargon-heavy storytelling is ultimately too dully detail-heavy for the casual viewer. Military history buffs will love this stuff, but everyone else will tune out. Command Decisions: Tet Offensive is even worse; this is apparently an episode of History's goofy "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style show that gives viewers the chance to second-guess military leaders via multiple-choice questions ("YOU are General William Westmoreland, what would YOU do?"), and it is not worth your time.
I was also looking forward to the set's profile of Thurgood Marshall, but it is a real disappointment. This 1997 episode of A&E's Biography doesn't hold up well next to the dynamic filmmaking of the box's other documentaries; it utilizes the pedestrian talking-head/photos-and-narration/talking-head/photos-and-narration construction ad nauseum, making for a mighty dull portrait of a truly great American.
Some of the other, shorter shows are interesting enough (the three episode of "History Uncovered" are all informative, as are the JFK Assassination episode of Bill Kurtis' "Investigating History" and the Riot: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial edition of "American Justice"), though there is some redundancy from program to program; two of the "Voices of the Civil Rights" programs tell the same story of the Klan attack on Vernon Dahmer, the "Modern Marvels" show on Apollo 11 and 13 cover much of the same ground as Failure Is Not An Option, and I'm not sure why the Biography on Martin Luther King was included when King covers the same ground, better.
Also irritating is the set's inclusion of shows that don't fall under the 1960s heading. My above reference to the "Modern Marvels" on Apollo 13 was not a typo; it's a fine 45-minute show, but that near-catastrophe happened in spring of 1970. We also have a "Modern Marvels" on the Space Shuttle; that program obviously dates well after the decade in question (both of these were part of the "Race to the Moon" two-disc set, which was apparently ported over intact). The Peyote To LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey show sounds like a natural fit, but it is actually a 90-minute first-person documentary wherein author and archaeologist Wade Davis retraces the steps of scientist Richard Evans Schultes. His Amazon expeditions and field work among Native American communities helped bring the titular hallucinogens into the counter-culture. But said counter-culture isn't even mentioned until the 75-minute mark (Schultes' field work primarily occurred in the 1930s and 1940s), and the tiny bit of 60s material is all seen, in greater detail, in the Hippies doc.
Some of these redundancies are to be expected when covering this wide-ranging of a topic. But the viewer gets the feeling that, if History hadn't been trying so hard to create a "mega-set," the strongest material could have been whittled down to a truly essential box.
History Presents: The 60s Megaset comes in a handsome multifold case, which collapses down to a hardback book-style package that looks great on the shelf. The 14 DVDs inside are all single-sided, and arranged two-up on plastic trays. The full program for the 14 discs is as follows:
Disc 1: King
Disc 2: 1968 with Tom Brokaw
Disc 3: The Vietnam War, Vol. 1: Vietnam: On The Frontlines 1-4
Disc 4: The Vietnam War, Vol. 2: LBJ And Vietnam: In The Eye Of The Storm / Command Decisions: Tet Offensive / Unsung Heroes: The Battle of Khe Sanh
Disc 5: Race to the Moon, Vol. 1: Failure Is Not An Option
Disc 6: Race to the Moon, Vol. 2: Code Name: Project Orion / Modern Marvels: Apollo 13 / Modern Marvels: The Space Shuttle
Disc 7: Voices of Civil Rights Vol. 1: Voices of Civil Rights / Mississippi State Secrets / Crossing The Bridge
Disc 8: Voices of Civil Rights Vol. 2: Biography: Martin Luther King Jr. / Biography: Thurgood Marshall
Disc 9: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, Vol. 1: Feature
Disc 10: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, Vol. 2: Bonus programs- Biography: John F. Kennedy / Biography: Joseph Kennedy Sr.
Disc 11: The 60's: The JFK Assassination / Modern Marvels: Apollo 11 / Bay of Pigs Declassified
Disc 12: The 60's: Peyote to LSD
Disc 13: Days of Rage and Wonder: Hippies
Disc 14: Days of Rage and Wonder: Riot: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial / Sex and the Vietnam War
Video quality varies wildly across the set. Most of the shows are full-frame, with a few of the newer ones (like the Brokaw docs) letterboxed within that 4:3 image; it would have been nice if A&E Video would have sprung for anamorphic transfers. We're at the mercy of preservation for the often-spotty archival footage, of course, and much of it looks about as good as can be expected, while many of the recreations have been artificially aged with matching scratches and dirt. The video quality of some of the older shows (like the Biography episodes) is on the noisy side, but the newer ones (again, the Brokaw docs in particular) sport sharp images with crisp edges and excellent saturation.
All of the shows are presented in suitable if unexciting 2.0 stereo. It is about as expected for television documentaries, with narration and interviews clear and audible. The only real trouble spot I noticed was in the opening of the King documentary, where the effective use of U2's "Pride (In The Name of Love)" is hampered by a muddy mix that renders the accompanying interview audio difficult to understand. That's the exception, though; in general, the audio is perfectly adequate throughout.
As many of these documentaries have been released previously on their own, the set designates the "bonus features" as those which were initially deemed as such. It might have been wise to designate some of the previously mentioned, less than relevant programs as extras also, but no matter.
On the 1968disc, we have "Tom Brokaw's Personal Perspectives" (4:12 total), three pieces of Brokaw reflecting on the times; all feel like promo pieces for the show's original airing. Similarly, we have "Additional Interviews" (13:16 total) with several of the documentary's interview subjects. Some are of interest, though no one person gets more than a 2-minute clip. The only other bonus features accompany the JFK: A Presidency Revealed documentary. There, we find two more episodes of Biography: JFK: A Personal Story (1:30:08), and Joseph Kennedy Sr.: Father of an American Dynasty (44:09).
There is a wealth of great material in History Presents: The 60s Megaset, but you do have to go digging for it; the set is too bogged down with replicated information and less-than-stellar shows that often don't relate to the subject matter at hand. It's a fine collector's piece, and the good stuff is worth having, so consider this set Recommended, albeit with reservations.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.