TV Review: American Experience’s ‘1964’

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

American Experience 1964

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’

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

  • Production: <p>Produced by Insignia Films for American Experience and presented by WGBH Boston.</p>
  • Crew: <p>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.</p>
  • Cast: <p>Narrator: Oliver Platt.</p>