Tuning in to the '60s through two families
NEW YORK — Bashing the 1960s is sociopolitical sport these days, what with politicians and news commentators linking President Clinton (derisively) with the decade.
But however one may feel about that controversial era, a lively new television miniseries is bound to stimulate authentic discussion all over again.
"The '60s" (Feb. 7 and 8, 9-11 p.m., NBC) posed a nearly impossible task for its writers: tell over the course of two evenings a complex tale of political activism and personal reconstruction with characters who are memorable enough to make it all seem plausible - from the civil rights movement to Vietnam War protests to the sexual revolution.
"Linda Obst and I lived it," says writer Jeffrey Fiskin, speaking of himself and the miniseries' producer. "And we poached on our own lives mercilessly. What I inherited when I came on the project was an excellent documentary about the 1960s. Documentary filmmakers had worked on it for a year. It had characters and [the filmmakers] had chosen most of the landmark moments - the Chicago Democratic convention, Woodstock, the Watts riots, Columbia, the march on the Pentagon, etc.
"But when Linda called me, she said 'We don't have a human story yet,' " Mr. Fiskin said in a recent interview. "We don't have anything to make reality of what went on, besides all the political stuff."
To humanize the politics of the decade, Fiskin and Ms. Obst tell the tale of two fictional families, one white and one black.
One of the few major flaws of the miniseries is that the story of the African-American family is less developed than that of the white family. The writers' individual experiences had their limitations.
But Fiskin and Obst do get it right when it comes to the white family, the Herlihys. There, a paternalistic dad tries to run everybody's life and misunderstands both his kids and his era. Yet the writers are careful to make him a warm, kind, good man, nevertheless. And his wife, long-sufferer and peacemaker that she is, finally stands up for herself just a little. One of the sons is an intellectual who ends up an activist; the other becomes a marine and comes home from the war spooked, but not beyond reclamation. And then there's the daughter who is betrayed by the sexual revolution and estranged from her dad by an unwanted pregnancy.
Still, all of these are minor players in the earth-shaking events of the times.
"It is a very easy decade to make look silly," Fiskin says. "But we felt we wanted to rescue the decade from its ill use at the hands of others - everyone has been harping on the demons of the '60s. The fact is there were demons - but there were angels too" - the civil rights movement and the women's movement among them, he says. "White college kids getting beaten up and killed to register black voters is not [an act of] self-indulgence, it is part of being [part of] a larger human family - which is what America and democracy have always been about," Fiskin adds.
He laments how many commentators in referring to the '60s focus only on the self-indulgence of the period. Some of those indulgences are skimmed over in the film - maybe a little too much. But that's probably because the other side of the story is so often omitted when the '60s are routinely trashed.
"Linda points out that [today] in her part of L.A., every precinct captain is black, and that is a direct result of some hard work by a lot of good people," he says.
Another of the "angels" that Fiskin believes has been ignored is the sense of belonging to something larger than oneself that political activism provided.
Obst and Fiskin have tried hard to be fair to conservative viewpoints. Militant organizers, for example, were sometimes egotists with personal and selfish agendas - the villain of this piece is one such man.
One of the best things about the miniseries is its folk-rock soundtrack - dj vu for those who grew up in this period. Bob Dylan - the prince of protest music - re-recorded "The Chimes of Freedom" for the show.
"We threw ourselves into this [project] with the conviction that we could make a difference," Fiskin says. "And when Bob Dylan agreed to do "Chimes of Freedom" ... well, he was the voice of the '60s...."