Eight-hour historical doc based on the provocative David Halberstam tome “The Fifties” carries the depth and vitality of a true definitive work, painstakingly deconstructing one of our most misunderstood decades with a sub-stance that matches its considerable style. More than a mere rehash, it’s a revelation, an example of nonfiction TV at its most enlightening.
In interviews, Pulitzer Prize-winner Halberstam — who shows up often throughout the six-night “Fifties” to raise points and clarify others — has enthused over the project, and it’s easy to see why. The mini literally brings his book to life without trans-forming it into a simplistic ode to kitsch.
Prime strength of the series, the most ambitious in the History Channel’s nearly three years of life, is its subtle de-bunking 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 short-change 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 so-ciety of today.
Lest we forget, the ’50s were the last decade where men were the sole breadwinners and women the doting house-wives. 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!”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Yet that is hardly the crux of “The Fifties,” which focuses in large part on the forces that drove the decade like the Cold War, McCarthyism, the rising Soviet nuclear threat, the dawn of the civil rights movement and the space pro-gram and such cultural movements as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the rush to the suburbs and the blossoming influence of TV — whose pioneering execu-tives “made a deliberate attempt to make America seem a lot squarer than it really was,” Hal-berstam believes.
Series segments the decade into various subcategories such as Part 2’s “Selling the American Way” (the rise of TV), Part 3’s “Let’s Play House” (the gulf between TV’s sanitized version of American life and the way things really were), Part 4’s “A Burning Desire” (sowing the roots of the sexual revolution) and Part 5’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 in “The Fifties” 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.