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The Boston Phoenix Don't Look Back

The '60s is sanitized beyond belief

By Robert David Sullivan

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Boasting about as much depth as a Burger King commercial, the two-part TV film The '60s is an insult to anyone who's had to deal with any tragedy greater than a lost cat. Its three major characters glide through the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, and various counterculture scenes as if they were on a theme-park ride. We first see sweet, working-class Katie Herlihy (Julia Stiles) scandalizing her family by doing the twist at a high-school dance. This sets up a major theme of the film: the good characters in The '60s choose only those acts of rebellion that will have become acceptable to all, from Kenneth Starr to the pope, by 1999.

Later, Katie becomes pregnant and, in a scene sure to please Operation Rescue members, rejects Mom's suggestion that an abortion may be a good idea: "This isn't a dress you just grow out of!" (Yes, that's what the 1960s were all about: smashing the power of suburban mothers and their sinister ties to Planned Parenthood.) Dad kicks her out of the house, so she hitchhikes to San Francisco and moves in with a bunch of hippies, including the father of her child. Cut to a few years later: her son Rainbow is sick with pneumonia and she can't afford medical care because the male members of the household refuse to get jobs. Katie is so desperate to help her son that she takes a job performing at a strip club -- which she quits on her first night because a customer asks for a lap dance. After that the kid somehow recovers and the two of them end up on a cozy commune with plenty of food. This whole sequence seems designed to (a) give us a glimpse of a strip club because such things existed in the 1960s, and (b) show us that good girls didn't work in them no matter how dire their circumstances. I can only guess that Rainbow got over his pneumonia because his mom made the right moral choice, but unfortunately we don't get an enjoyably campy scene of Jesus materializing at Haight and Ashbury.

Katie's two brothers are similarly charmed. Sensitive Michael (Josh Hamilton) participates in civil-rights and anti-war demonstrations in which other people get clubbed by the police. Always the voice of passionate moderation (closer in spirit to Johnny Carson than to Abbie Hoffman), he comes up with the chant "We're not against the soldiers, we're against the war" at the March on the Pentagon. He also patiently waits for his girlfriend to get tired of the most villainous character in the film: a radical activist named Kenny (Jeremy Sisto) who, we're told more than once, cares more about "ideas" than about "people." Kenny is also used to strengthen the point that leftists and hippies were the true misogynists in the '60s (in one pivotal scene, he orders Michael's girlfriend to do some photocopying). Michael's blue-collar father (Bill Smitrovich), first presented as a Neanderthal of the most cartoonish sort, becomes a proto-feminist near the end of the film, but Kenny is wiped out of the story in a manner sure to please all the sympathizers of Augusto Pinochet.

As for little brother Brian (Jerry O'Connell), he enlists in the Marines and gets shipped off to Vietnam. Every so often we get news footage of the fighting there intercut with shots of O'Connell grimacing and poking a machine gun toward the camera, as if posing for a Life magazine cover. He comes home, has nightmares, speaks out against the war, and does a little experimenting with drugs. The only other vet we meet in The '60s is some drug addict on the street who gives Brian the chance to say, "Well, he's even worse off than me." And for the, uh, Negroes in the viewing audience, there's a halfhearted storyline about the son of a black minister and his idealistic son, who drops the name of Malcolm X and joins the Black Panthers but is most passionate in introducing a white character to the music of James Brown.

The '60s could almost be a satire: nice, bland Americans enjoy Motown tunes and cool threads while the real troublemakers get their heads smashed. But the writing, directing, and acting are uniformly humorless. NBC touts executive producer Lynda Obst -- editor of The Rolling Stone History of the Sixties and now a producer of such films as Sleepless in Seattle -- as the guiding force behind this white elephant, but I'm assuming that the network brass put plenty of restrictions on the content.

And if the right-wing revisionism of The '60s is disappointing, so is the missed opportunity to explore some of the less obvious trends of the era. How about Brazilian music, which for a couple of years was almost as popular in the United States as the Beatles and Motown were? Or the grass-roots presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, which led directly to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980? Or the Warren Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which sparked a cult of conspiracy theory that is still growing? And would you have guessed from all the films set in the '60s that the population of San Francisco actually declined during the decade while Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston attracted hundreds of thousands of people?

Call me a radical, but I think a four-hour film should include something new or surprising. Otherwise, viewers should heed the lyrics of the Who (no surprise that they're not on the soundtrack of The '60s) and tell NBC, "We're not going to take it."

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