Matthew Lewis/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Where to watch: CNN; after broadcast on demand on cable and satellite and streaming on CNNgo
Air date: Sunday, May 27, and Monday, May 28, 9-11 p.m. ET
The most exciting thing on TV this Memorial Day weekend is the documentary series 1968: The Year That Changed America, produced by Tom Hanks, 61, who besides his movie star gig rivals Ken Burns, 64, as America’s leading historian onscreen. Hanks should get his 16th Emmy nomination for this two-night, four-part, deep dive into a year that outdoes 2018 for tumultuous changes — many of which have a familiar ring.
There’s a controversial game-changer president (Lyndon Johnson) with historically low approval ratings, bloody political riots, a crisis in Korea, a fractured nation at endless war abroad (and also with itself) and an unprecedentedly close — and ugly —presidential election nearly upended by charges of illegal foreign interference.
And it all looked so promising when 1968 began. In the documentary, we hear Johnson crowing about his Medicare and Medicaid programs helping 25 million Americans, and Jesse Jackson noting, “In terms of civil rights, no tree in the forest is as tall as Abe Lincoln, except Lyndon Johnson.” Then all hell breaks loose, cities erupt in flames, George Wallace leads a third-party candidacy that fails (yet also forged the new coalition that now rules America) and Johnson wonders why the people he did so much for turned on him so bitterly.
1968 clarifies why Americans turned on each other in ways that still affect us today. Hanks’ team packs in a plethora of history in a hurry, brilliantly sorting it all out with archival footage (much of it rare or never before seen) and sharp, concise interviews with power players who were there, cogent journalists, reflective historians and even music and film critics. The show weaves together bewildering events and the important tunes and movies that influenced our thoughts about the amazing things erupting nightly on the news. The soundtrack alone will bring you back, from “The Sound of Silence” to the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.”
It’s not just nostalgia, though the series totally satisfies on that score. We learn how the nation’s head-spinning change was signified and driven by James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the racial and sexual integration of Sly Stone’s hit-making band, and the Supremes’ switch from the likes of “Baby Love” to the stark social commentary of “Love Child.”
The series shows how central pop culture was to history. When Mayor Daley’s administration asked Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie Party about plans for a demonstration during the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Yippies explained that they wanted to dump LSD in the water supply, as in the film Wild in the Streets. The Graduate electrified alienated youth, and Bonnie and Clyde captured the violent rebellion in the air. North Vietnam lost its biggest battle, 1968's Tet Offensive — but won the war by staging shocking scenes on TV that convinced Americans it was unwinnable.
Many grownups remember the innovative zombie hit flick Night of the Living Dead, but 1968 puts it in the context of Martin Luther King’s scary final year. King, attacked by white moderates for opposing the Vietnam War and by black radicals for refusing to advocate armed insurrection, launched a whole new fight for economic rights, siding with underpaid garbagemen who went on strike after two of them were accidentally crushed by their truck’s compactor. (They climbed in with the garbage because it was raining and they were forbidden to seek shelter anywhere whites might see them.) Then King was shot. So when Night of the Living Dead came out — a film with a black hero who gets shot by whites — it wasn’t just a stunning movie moment. The movie was seen by blacks as a re-enactment of King's death, just as Planet of the Apes was seen as an apocalyptic allegory about racism. In 1968, no movie was scarier than real life.
1968 has many iconic scenes you’ll remember, but it’s deeper than most anniversary shows. There are plenty of eye-opening, memory-enriching dramas in Hanks’ documentary about a watershed year that changed history, from the rise of the women’s movement to the Olympic athletes who staged a shocking political protest (raising their fists rather than taking a knee). 1968 is a highly entertaining work of art that helps explain what happened, and how we got here.