TV Review: American Experience’s ‘1964’

Thought-provoking PBS doc explores seismic events we're still feeling a half-century later


Narrator: Oliver Platt.

For those who want to better understand the roots of the U.S.’ current social, cultural and political discord, “1964” is must-see TV. That’s because unlike a lot of arbitrary anniversaries, the events of a half-century ago clearly echo through the present conversation, from the arrival of the Beatles to the Civil Rights Act, from Barry Goldwater’s unapologetic brand of conservatism to the counterculture movement. TV news often does a poor job of connecting dots, but as told in almost chronological fashion, this “American Experience” presentation is an illuminating road map that details how we got from there to here.

America, of course, entered 1964 still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination six weeks earlier. But even with that as a jumping-off point, a dizzying number of seismic events ensued during a year in which “every kind of split in American life suddenly became open and visible,” as author Robert Lipsyte puts it.

Perhaps foremost, Johnson’s advancements of Kennedy’s policies – pushing through the Civil Rights Act and his Great Society programs – continue to be litigated to this day. Similarly, Barry Goldwater’s emergence, espousing what became the foundation for modern conservatism, despite his overwhelming defeat in ’64, paved the way for Ronald Reagan and the current political strain that has come to define and dominate the Republican Party.

Interviewing a wide assortment of historians and participants in the era, writer-director Stephen Ives doesn’t stop with politics, widening the lens to include momentous events in culture and sports. These include then-Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston, making the future Muhammad Ali the heavyweight champion; Betty Friedan publishing “The Feminine Mystique;” Freedom Riders invading (and disappearing from) Mississippi; and Bob Dylan singing about how the times they were a-changin’.

Narrated by Oliver Platt, “1964” is the very embodiment of George Santayana’s famous line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hodding Carter III, who served in the Carter administration, identifies this period as “the propulsion from the past into the future” – including the revolutionary upending of Southern segregation, realigning the political playing field.

Yet after two hours of this thought-provoking production, the realization is not so much the U.S. is repeating the past as still arguing about it.

TV Review: American Experience's '1964'

(Documentary; PBS, Tues. Jan. 14, 8 p.m.)


Produced by Insignia Films for American Experience and presented by WGBH Boston.


Executive producer, Mark Samels; producer, Amanda Pollak; writer-director, Stephen Ives; camera, Andrew Young; editors, George O’Donnell, Amy Foote; music, Peter Rundquist. 115 MIN.


Narrator: Oliver Platt.

More TV

  • The Lion King

    'Lion King' VFX Supervisor Rob Legato to Keynote at the 2019 View Conference

    Rob Legato, visual effects supervisor of “The Lion King,” “The Addams Family” co-director Conrad Vernon and Baobab Studios’ co-founder and chief creative officer Eric Darnell, director of the VR studio’s Emmy- and Annie-winning VR short “Crow: The Legend,” are rounding out the keynote speakers at this fall’s 20th edition of the View Conference in Turin, [...]

  • Red Arrow Studios Boss James Baker

    Red Arrow Studios Boss James Baker Says Flexibility, Not Size, Is Key

    The goalposts have shifted for international production and distribution groups, says James Baker, president of Red Arrow Studios. “The old notion that size is everything is changing,” Baker, a former exec at Sky and Al Gore’s Current TV, tells Variety. “It’s now much more how flexible can you be to respond to a change in [...]

  • Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre,

    International TV Newswire: Streaming Sports, Gen Z on Power, Dutch Detectives & More

    In this week’s International TV Newswire, catch up on Amazon’s soccer push, Gen Z’s thoughts on power structures, DAZN’s newest acquisitions in Europe, a rebooted detective drama in Amsterdam, A+E Networks executive shake-up in Asia and a new international animation alliance between Mondo TV Group and German upstart Toon2Tango. Amazon Picks up Another Soccer Docu-Series: [...]

  • Pinewood Studios James Bond

    Netflix's Shepperton Studios Deal Is Stretching the U.K.'s Production Limits

    Netflix’s huge new hub at Shepperton Studios outside London is a further fillip for Britain’s booming production sector. Amid jitters over Brexit and its effects on the economy, the streaming giant’s commitment is a vote of confidence in the U.K. entertainment industry and a continuing source of local jobs. But the decision by Netflix to [...]

  • BBC ITV BritBox Streaming

    BritBox to Roll Out in the U.K. in Fourth Quarter

    British broadcasters the BBC and ITV have formally agreed to launch their joint streaming service, BritBox, in the U.K. in the fourth quarter of 2019. It will be priced at £5.99 per month, making it the same price as the cheapest Netflix subscription in the U.K. ITV will control BritBox, holding a 90% stake. The [...]

  • Kamala Harris

    Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Face Rematch in Next Democratic Debate

    Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris will have the opportunity to square off again in the second debate among Democratic hopefuls vying for their party’s nomination in the 2020 presidential election CNN, which will broadcast the next round of debates on July 30 and 31, televised a draw Thursday night that decided [...]

  • Jon Wax

    Jon Wax Joins Amazon Studios as Head of Genre Programming

    YouTube’s head of scripted programming Jon Wax is joining Amazon Studios as its head of genre programming, Variety has learned. Wax will take up the position recently vacated by Sharon Tal Yguado. He had joined YouTube in August 2017, heading up drama, unscripted and current programming for YouTube’s premium channel. Prior to that, he had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content