The tumult of the 1960s continues to reverberate, which is why Tom Brokaw’s can’t-miss look at 1968 merits attention for viewers beyond those who lived it or are boning up for term papers. Conservative commentator and former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan dubs it “the worst year in this nation’s history,” marred by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War abroad and the counterculture revolution and rioting at home. Not to sound like a broken record, but the real shame here is that Brokaw’s former network possesses no appetite for this sort of serious documentary.
Granted, so much happened in ’68 — on so many levels — that even a two-hour special struggles to do the year justice, flitting from music to various consciousness movements (women, blacks) to presidential politics. Given that Brokaw already made a considerable splash with his “The Greatest Generation,” it’s also worth noting that the project clearly advances the former anchor’s latest book, “BOOM! Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today.”
Brokaw shrewdly highlights the lingering cultural influence of the ’60s by viewing the era through the prism of current stars, from Jon Stewart weighing in on the debt he owes the Smothers Brothers to Bruce Springsteen ruminating on what the music of Bob Dylan and others meant as a foundation for his formidable works.
Opening with a stand-up in San Francisco’s legendary Haight-Ashbury district, Brokaw cuts to footage of himself in the same spot 40 years ago, noting that an understanding of the U.S. then will “help shed light on the country that we are today.”
The strongest moments, perhaps inevitably, arise during segments on the King and Kennedy assassinations, from the latter discussing his brother’s death as he calls for peace after King’s murder to the wails of aching despair when RFK was shot. Brokaw revisits the latter event with Rafer Johnson, a then-member of the Kennedy campaign who pounced on shooter Sirhan Sirhan. Johnson calls the assassination “truly one of the saddest moments in my life.”
Brokaw’s balanced approach includes conservatives who consider the ’60s legacy a blight that America is still struggling to eradicate, along with the intriguing thought that the corporate pioneers of recent decades were steeped in the counterculture’s irreverent underpinnings of questioning authority. A minor criticism is that the doc closes rather abruptly, as if Brokaw and company ran out of time.
Still, as with VH1’s recent “NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell,” “1968” demonstrates how zeroing in on a relatively finite window in history can prove extremely illuminating. It’s also the kind of substantial endeavor that should make History Channel proud as a peacock and make the Peacock where Brokaw once feathered his nest look for a place to hide.