Note: This set was originally set to be released on 10/28/08, but it has since disappeared from A&E's upcoming catalog and from Amazon. A&E had no further information for me when I contacted them.
For those of you who subscribe to the adage, "If you remember the sixties, you weren't there," A&E has gone back to the vaults and assembled 14 DVDs' worth of material to jog those old brain cells and help bring back the halcyon days of free love, civil rights, social unrest and really, really bad hairdos. The 60's, like all of the other repackaged A&E efforts that are hitting the shelves in what I must assume is a hoped for holiday buying onslaught, vary in quality and interest, but provides a sweeping overview of a decade the forever changed America, for both better and worse, and whose impact was felt globally like few decades before or since.
Two thought provoking and at times heartbreaking pieces, each on its own disc and hosted by Tom Brokaw, start off this expansive set. King examines the life of our nation's greatest civil rights leader, an examination that seems even more pertinent with the recent election of Obama as our 44th President. 1968 delves into what some consider (along with, perhaps, 1963) the watershed year of this extraordinary decade. While some conservative pundits allege that Brokaw is the "media liberal elite" personified, it's hard to make a case for that assertion throughout these two objective, yet personal, accounts. Brokaw was a reporter for a lot of the stories that make up these two disparate documentaries, and there is in fact some vintage footage of him, button down shirt, skinny tie and all. While Brokaw can be a bit sentimental at times, as when he's recounting the sad fate of a buddy of his who was shipped to Vietnam and perished there (in 1968), his calm, reasoned analysis of world shaking events makes both of these pieces not only informative, but at times emotionally devastating. King is filled to the brim with Martin's eloquent speeches, speeches which obviously influenced the soaring rhetoric of the man who's about to assume the United States Presidency. There's a certain sadness that permeates both of these pieces--in King it's of course linked to the tragic fate of its subject as well as the long sad slog to achieve basic equality; in 1968, it's a bit more amorphous, born of the idealism that once flourished so brightly (if induced by drugs), then died such a malingering death in the subsequent years. Both of these fascinating documentaries are top shelf efforts, spanning both the epic scope of their subjects while honing in on individual stories to telling effect.
Two other multi-disc efforts that are directly related to the two above offer multi-episode and/or longer form documentaries that attempt to examine both The Vietnam War and Voices of Civil Rights. Vietnam offers a four part series, part of "America at War," culled from the early Roger Mudd hosted years of The History Channel. While it's an informative piece, full of first person interviews as well as vintage news footage from the CBS archives, it seems at times awfully short sighted, as in its strange starting point of late 1965. No background of Indochina's long evolution from colonial outpost to becoming Vietnam and still suffering the slings and arrows (and bullets and bombs) of various foreign occupations is offered at all, making the United States' effort seem even more senseless than it ultimately was. Special emphasis is given to turning points of the conflict, as in the disastrous Tet Offensive which ultimately led to Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection in 1968.
Voices is a good deal more incisive, starting with its eponymous documentary which stemmed from a 2004 expedition by journalists to record survivors of the Civil Rights Movement. This is first-person history of the finest order, and benefits immensely from "rank and file" Americans, both black and white, who were there when these epochal events unfolded. The rest of this two disc enterprise features a disturbing piece called "Mississippi State Secrets," which documents the truly frightening activities of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a group supposedly out to "improve" Mississippi's image, but whose real purpose was to spy on Civil Rights sympathizers, sometimes working in conjunction with the Ku Klux Klan to harass and even kill them. In an era of The Patriot Act, this piece brings home in chilling detail what a government out of control with no oversight can do. Also in this subset are Biography episodes on King and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, as well as another really excellent piece called "Crossing the Bridge," about 1965's infamous Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. President Johnson shows his mettle in this piece, moving decisively to realize aims put forth by President Kennedy two years prior. Also playing a major part in this episode is a young John Lewis, the same Lewis who 43 years later came under fire, as a United States Congressman, for bringing up the horrors of segregation and George Wallace when some of John McCain's rally supporters got a little out of hand at times when denouncing Obama.
Having recently reviewed the Blu-ray of the incredible NASA-fest When We Left Earth, I was perhaps a little underwhelmed with this set's two disc compilation called The Race for the Moon. While there's nothing really wrong with these four episodes, many of which in fact contain some of the same archival footage as Earth, they seem somewhat rushed and generalized compared to the more recent piece. "Failure is Not an Option" is nonetheless a well developed generalist overview of the space program from its very beginnings to the ultimate moon landing, full of great vintage shots of the astronauts doing their thing both earthbound and out in space. The second disc of this subset includes what for me was the most interesting piece, "Project Orion," about (incredibly) a secret project to blast people to the vast reaches of space by putting an atom bomb underneath them. Because Orion is so little known even today, there's a lot of new information here (some of it patently incredible--could they really have thought nuclear explosions could be controlled?), making it less repetitive than the rest of Moon is at times. Also included are two episodes of "Modern Marvels," one on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and another on the Space Shuttle. All told, this is not a bad compilation, it's simply cobbled together from different History Channel source series (like "History Undercover"), and does not have the unified throughline that I would have preferred.
JFK: A Presidency Revealed is a fascinating piece that is helped immeasurably by including a lot of JFK's own ruminations, some of which had previously been classified, that would have been part of his autobiography had he lived to write it. History Channel always does these retrospectives brilliantly, and this particular effort is no exception. Covering both the mystique and the somewhat seedy reality beneath it, JFK presents both the man who was able to inspire millions as well as the conniving politician who happened to be both a womanizer and, perhaps, a drug addict, and not necessarily only because of his many previously hidden health issues, something this piece goes into quite a bit of detail about. It makes for one of the most consistently compelling portraits imaginable, showing that our public leaders often hide a private side that is less than completely appealing. JFK does a stellar job of presenting Kennedy not only in his historical context, but, perhaps even more importantly, in his familial one, goaded on by a father who wanted power at any cost and a sibling rivalry that can only be termed epic. A second disc in the subset contains excellent Biography episodes on JFK and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Taken together they present a multi-generational saga that surely must go down in 20th century history as one that had more impact than perhaps any other familial relationship in American history of that era.
Days of Rage and Wonder is the catch-all title for two discs of interesting material, the longest of which is an illuminating exploration into that mid- to late-sixties phenomenon, "Hippies." This very informative piece starts with the drug culture (you expected anything less?) and then branches out into the societal impact our longhaired "freaky" friends had, spanning a time period that actually starts to encroach on the 1970s, post-Woodstock and ultra Nixonian. Two somewhat smaller scale pieces fill out the second disc of this subset, one dealing with "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," the other with "Sex in the Vietnam War." For younger viewers who just witnessed 100,000 people peacefully gather in Grant Park in Chicago to see Barack Obama's speech after winning the Presidency, it may seem incredible for them to see footage of the same city exactly 40 years earlier overrun by marauding youth and policemen, violently confronting each other. The 1968 Democratic Convention was a debacle, with antiwar demonstrators meeting the Daley "order" machine head-on, with not very civil results. "Conspiracy" follows the subsequent Federal trial of the infamous Chicago Seven, a labyrinthine legal process that saw them convicted, that conviction overturned, and then them being retried for contempt of court, which led to yet another conviction, though one without any real consequence, as jail time was not required. It's an invigorating look into civil disobedience that perhaps became too disobedient, exacerbated by a police force running amok, and it makes for a visceral viewing experience. "Sex in the Vietnam War" may be of more than passing prurient interest to some viewers, but it nonetheless documents the very real need for some kind of relief that Vietnam armed forces sought with great regularity. Some of the facts presented, such as on-base "massage parlors" with literally hundreds of Vietnamese women available, may strike some as surprising, to say the least. This is a heretofore largely untold story of a government working hand in hand (and more than that, frankly) to provide its soldiers with physical pleasures, usually to the detriment of the women involved. It's definitely a "downer," to use 60's parlance, but it's a story that deserves to be seen and ruminated upon.
The 1960's drug culture is examined tangentially in 2007's Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey, one of the most consistently interesting and unusual pieces in this set. While most people have heard of such mind-expansionists as Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, or even LSD synthesizer Albert Hofmann, my hunch is very few have heard of the man "Odyssey" spends the most time exploring, Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes is described as a 20th century real-life Indiana Jones, a mild-mannered botanist who ended up spending years in the Amazon rain forest and other exotic climes in a lifelong pursuit of new plants, specifically those with hallucinogenic properties. Schultes was one of the first westerners to thoroughly explore the shamanic tradition "from the inside," as it were, ingesting various botanical drugs with shaman guides in order to better understand these ancient traditions. "Odyssey" documents Schultes' own fascinating odyssey from studying the peyote rituals of Native American tribes to rarer substances like yage (pronounced "yah-hey"), while weaving in the long, strange trip his influence took in delivering a hallucinogenic mindset to later followers like Leary and even Andrew Weil, who is interviewed extensively throughout the piece. "Odyssey" is also interesting in that it's a first-person story, told by one of Schultes' acolytes, a modern-day ethnobotanist named Wade Davis.
The final disc offers three wildly disparate pieces that are each interesting in their own way. The JFK Assassination, a 2004 episode of the Bill Kurtis narrated series Investigating History, is a forensics-based, succinct recounting of the evidence in the killing and the various conspiracy theories that have sprung up due to some pretty sloppy handling of various elements over the years. Some of the more outlandish theories are debunked rather handily, but it's to this episode's credit that it presents some of the evidence, notably acoustics which seem to support at least four and perhaps as many as five shots, that contradicts the "official" Warren Report. The episode also points out the absurdity of having two diametrically opposed "official" government conclusions on the assassination--the Warren Report, which supports Oswald as the lone shooter, and the 1970s House Assassination Committee's Report, which supports a two shooter scenario. The slightest of the three on this disc is yet another episode from "Modern Marvels," this one on Apollo 11, which is fine for what it is but seems like an afterthought to the Moon documentaries included on the other discs. Much more interesting is The Bay of Pigs Declassified, which, while repeating some information from the JFK discs, does go into ample detail about how this fiasco colored the early tenure of Kennedy's Presidency.