CNN's Sobering Docuseries 1968 Shows Just How Much America Hasn't Changed

TV Reviews 1968: The Year That Changed America
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CNN's Sobering Docuseries <i>1968</i> Shows Just How Much America <i>Hasn't</i> Changed

Hi, Paste’s unofficial-official Doomsday Correspondent here with your update on wars, riots, climate change, drug cartels, genocidal despots, police crackdowns, true crime, fake crime and a panoply of really satisfactory answers to the question, “So, why did the Maya abandon their cities and vanish?”

Maybe they saw what I keep seeing? That we are caught in a time-loop worthy of Benedict Cumberbatch in a levitating cloak? That we keep thinking “this has never happened before,” even though the evidence is right in front of us that the same things happen again and again and we do not learn from them? Bobby Kennedy seemed to get that. Of course, he was assassinated in 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to get that. But he was assassinated in 1968, too.

Arguably, CNN’s new docuseries, executive produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, should be called 1968: The Year That Didn’t Change America Nearly Enough. But it’s a very engaging and panoramic (and frequently very, very sad) look at what happened that year. A lot happened. A lot.

“Winter” tracks the escalating protests against the Vietnam War in the wake of the Tet Offensive. The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The frustrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and the rising voice of Robert Kennedy. Student strikes. Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek another term. “Spring” tracks the last days of the life of MLK before his murder in Memphis, and Bobby Kennedy’s remarkable speech that night; the burning of draft cards (marchers in the streets carrying banners saying “Resist”; the race for the Democratic nomination; Bobby Kennedy’s propulsion into the farm workers’ rights movement in California and his fatal exit through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on the night he wins. “Summer” shows the fall of Eugene McCarthy (probably from survivor’s guilt) and the embarrassing debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the rise of Richard Nixon. It also weaves in the women’s movement and the eerie presence of a drama-queen ragemonster named George Wallace who uses “four-letter words” to incite even greater chaos among the left and attempts to get Colonel Sanders (yes, that Colonel Sanders) as a running mate. “Fall” touches on the Apollo moon landing, the Mexico City Olympics and the protest thereof by Black athletes, and the ongoing quest to take control of the tailspin of the war in Vietnam. Annnnnd the play by Nixon to decide the election for the Democrats by announcing a ceasefire in Vietnam, and Nixon’s sending an agitator into the peace talks to dissuade the ambassador and waiting for the “better” deal he’d get if Nixon won. It ends with the Apollo 8 crew reading the Book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, and a sudden swell of hope.

The production style is, appropriately, quick-paced, montage-heavy, and layered with noise (sound-editing it must have been a kick to the head—so many amazing and instantly recognizable voices, a mosaic of speeches and songs and reportage). Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross, John Lennon and Sly Stone, James Brown. King and Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Walter Cronkite and Gregory Peck. The range of historians (and, as Neil Patrick Harris once sang, “Just for the heck of it, Tom Hanks!) and public figures who survived the late 1960s and are still with us to talk about it, is broad and clear-eyed. They don’t take a lot of positions on who was good or bad or right or wrong among the many competing movements, allowing the footage to make its own statement. Though generally linear, that footage is layered and collage-like, as is the present-day retrospective commentary. It’s well-constructed. And it’s hard to watch. Because the year that changed America looks a hell of a lot like this year and last year. I suppose it “changed America” in terms of the extent to which presidential campaigns were conducted on TV; the Nixon-Humphrey Show does seem to have redefined the model, and not necessarily in a good way.

Let’s see: a dirty, dragging, horrifying war. Corruption in politics. Class and race violence. Angry student protests. Distrust. Disaffection. Finger-pointing. Demagoguery. The shouting down of unpopular opinions and personalities. Police brutality. Athletes using their platform to protest institutional bigotry and being banned from their sport. Rallies, marches, strikes. Questioning the Electoral College. The disquieting gulf between who we’ve been told we are, as a nation, as a people, and the reality in the headlines, on the streets, in the air. And then a tipping point toward something transcendent.

What has changed? Not hypothetical: What has changed? I’m sure to people who lived it, 1968 must have felt like a crucible. But really? It must have felt as though everything was happening for the first time in history. But it wasn’t. It had just put on different clothes. The cruel cutting down of people who managed to be both visionary change agents and successful politicians? Not new. Racist and classist boil-over? Not new. Riots? Instability? Big dreams dashed by violence or ennui or both? Humans in general and Americans in specific have been acting out this script for ages. Only the costumes change. There is the appearance of progress. Then the appearance of regression. The appearance of peace and the appearance of violence. The breaking points that steer a culture toward and away from and back toward hope for something better.

I’ve been screening documentaries on every facet of American history for the last year and a half and the glaring through line is that history is not linear (“Winter” nods to this with the reboot of “unplugged Elvis”). It is circular. And we never stop failing to learn from it. If and when we ever start learning from our own history, that will, indeed, be a year that changed America.

Tune in for a sobering wake-up call.

1968: The Year That Changed America premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on CNN.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.