Tethered to the rather sobering notion that the youngest baby boomers are turning 50 this year, CNN’s “The Sixties” provides a nostalgic if not particularly insightful look at that tumultuous decade, one that inevitably features considerable overlap as it crisscrosses from topic to topic. Produced by Tom Hanks and properly littered with both experts and participants in its history, the 10-part production is a classy trip, but as constructed (with occasional exceptions), not quite the magical history tour it might have been.
So much went on during this formative period that it’s difficult to choose where to begin. Moreover, an hour devoted to Vietnam can’t help but bleed into others subtitled “The British Invasion” and “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’N’ Roll.”
Perhaps appropriately, “The Sixties” opens with “Television Comes of Age,” charting the advancement of the medium’s influence, starting with the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and proceeding through JFK’s assassination (“the moment television journalism comes of age,” says Dan Rather), as well as groundbreaking programs like “Star Trek,” “The Smothers Bros. Comedy Hour” and “Laugh-In.”
Throughout, there are fascinating clips, quotes and tidbits, like a young Ralph Nader saying TV is “the medium that’s either going to save America or send it down in demise,” or a young Mick Jagger being asked — two years into his stardom — how long he thinks he and the Rolling Stones can continue to perform. During the segment devoted to Vietnam, there’s also chilling audio of President Johnson confiding to aides regarding the war, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting, and I don’t think we can get out.”
Among the handful of segments previewed, the best is clearly a two-hour installment (the other extended chapter addresses the Civil Rights movement) that chronicles the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, including the skepticism that followed the Warren Commission Report and attempts in its wake to prove a conspiracy.
For all that, what’s largely missing from “The Sixties,” despite its meticulous detail in capturing these memorable events, is how much they resonate to this day, and the oversized influence that decade continues to wield over modern-day culture. Indeed, “Mad Men” has drawn much of its relevance from the desire to keep re-litigating the ’60s politically, and addressing at least some of that within the documentary would only have made it richer and more contextual.
Instead, “The Sixties” primarily plays like an opportunity for those who actually experienced the changeover from black-and-white TV to living color to re-experience that glow, without necessarily bridging the gap for a younger generation weaned on having access to all that entertainment and more in its pocket.
At its best “The Sixties” is admirable, but to riff on an old promotional slogan, it isn’t all that it could be: Yes, it’s an exercise that might capture the magic of landing on the moon, but doesn’t take the extra step that would send viewers over it.