Prime strength of the series, the most ambitious in the History Channel’s nearly three years of life, is its subtle debunking of the pop culture myth that the 1950s were an era of carefree innocence and postwar stagnation. It digs beneath the malt shops and Hula Hoops to uncover a decade of revolutionary changes in the social and political landscapes of America, a time that set the table and lit the fuse for the ’60s explosion that followed.
Writer-director Alex Gibney and co-director Tracy Dahlby deftly blend the momentous with the inconsequential to paint a complex pastiche of ’50s life that’s consistently compelling to watch, generating a long-needed makeover to all of our notions and images of those, uh, happy days.
Not that the filmmakers shortchange us the campy memories. The home movies, newsreels, stills, print ads, TV show and B-movie clips and commercials (cigarettes were still the epitome of cool back then) show us snapshots of a time that does indeed seem to be light-years removed emotionally and intellectually from our neurotic, jaded society of today.
Lest we forget, the ’50s were the last decade when men were the sole breadwinners and women the doting housewives. One frightful print ad presented early on in the series — and illustrating the social claustrophobia and choking limitations placed on women — shows a cartoon likeness of a housewife with the caption, “Brains are for the birds!”
Yet that is hardly the crux of “The Fifties,” which focuses in large part on the forces that drove the decade — the Cold War, McCarthyism, the rising Soviet nuclear threat, the dawn of the civil rights movement and the space program and such cultural movements as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the rush to the suburbs and the blossoming influence of TV — whose pioneering executives “made a deliberate attempt to make America seem a lot squarer than it really was,” Halberstam believes.
Series segments the decade into various subcategories, such as part two’s “Selling the American Way” (the rise of TV), part three’s “Let’s Play House” (the gulf between TV’s sanitized version of American life and the way things really were), part four’s “A Burning Desire” (sowing the roots of the sexual revolution) and part five’s “The Rage Within” (the civil rights emergence, spotlighting Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.).
The music, the revealing interviews and Halberstam’s ever-present guiding hand all contribute to making that time of Eisenhower and Elvis seem a lot more interesting than probably anyone remembers. Finally, the decade that time forgot gets some respect. It may not happen again until the 2050s.