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American Experience: 1964 (DVD Review)

10 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

More often than not, books or documentaries that concentrate on some turbulent individual year of the 1960s deal with 1968, when so much exploded into race riots, political riots or assassinations. But most people think that 1964 (or, more precisely, JFK’s assassination in November 1963) set the table by officially jump-starting the decade, which up to that time was still ruled by Four Preps buzz-cuts, Rotary Club mindsets and whatever President Frank Sinatra dictated.

No sooner had the country gone into a funk over the Kennedy killing when the Beatles arrived to fill the void while simultaneously annihilating the TV ratings of Ed Sullivan’s competitors. And while the late January 1964 release of Dr. Strangelove isn’t a topic covered here in this inevitably selective but well above average two-hour look-back, it marked the first time that a grown-up comedy (as opposed to the gentle gooning of a Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello service picture) suggested that a loose screw or two at the Pentagon wasn’t an unthinkable proposition for mass entertainment. This was a very radical concept at the time, one of many things that were blowin’ in the wind.

The escalation of the Vietnam War is naturally covered here, including the Congress-passed Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that new president LBJ strong-armed through and then used to escalate the war against communist aggression — which he pronounced, “a-gray-shun” the same way my Southern-Ohio-bred shop teachers did in junior high. This is a relatively minor chapter in the documentary because the Vietnam War didn’t really get out of hand for a while.

But 1964 was the year after pioneer feminist Betty Friedan got her manifesto The Feminine Mystique published by W.W. Norton and Co., and by this time, everyone knew she was on to something given that a book that wasn’t expected to sell moved three million copies. One of the interviewees here makes an intriguing case that TV’s “Bewitched,” often dismissed as piffle of the day, was, in fact, a comedy of female empowerment (not that it would be that tough to empower yourself over Dick York). I suppose this is the opportunity to note that I once found myself alone in an elevator with Friedan while carrying a bag of Pampers — but did not think of the right comment (“I’m doing my part”) until five minutes after the doors opened and I exited at my floor.

The focus of civil rights coverage here is, as it has to be, is on the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner outside of Meridian, Miss. It was a benchmark event that finally got the national press interested in violence perpetrated against social activists in the movement (two of the victims were white), in part because the initial lack of success in locating the bodies enabled what was on top of everything else a mystery story to drag out over several weeks. The reminiscences here (including one by Schwerner’s widow) are very powerful — though for pure entertainment, 1964’s high point may be an anecdote about the documentary’s other racial component: Cassius Clay’s seemingly mad folly of challenging intimidating champ Sonny Liston in the ring. The story in question deals with an unlikely visit by the Beatles to the future Ali’s training camp, which may be well known but had gotten by me.

Even more than race, the biggest chunk of the story deals with the ’64 presidential election, in which Republican true believers of the party managed to nominate Barry Goldwater to run against LBJ for what they termed, “a choice, not an echo.” What one ultimately heard was the thundering echo of the latter’s 486-52 Electoral College smasheroo, but make no mistake: These were the seeds of Ronald Reagan’s similarly imposing win in 1980. No doubt astounded to have been invited to a PBS documentary, conservative pros Richard Viguerie and Phyllis Schlafly (looking reasonably hot for someone in her late 80s, gotta say) are clearly having a good time recalling what was certainly the high mark (up to through the year’s Republican Convention, at least) of the Conservative movement up to that time. Included here is a meaty clip from the pro-Goldwater speech that Reagan made on national TV on the Saturday night before the election — the one that not only put him on the map but also some stole some thunder from another 30-minute testimonial that John Wayne made in the same hour’s time slot. I saw both at the time and couldn’t figure out how the star of Tropic Zone and Hellcats of the Navy could trump the Duke when he was still riding high. Yet, come to think, Reagan’s big-screen swan song The Killers came out in ’64 as well, and that certainly beats Wayne’s Circus World, though their respective female co-stars (Angie Dickinson vs. Claudia Cardinale) make for a more equitable battle of the bands.


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