We Were Overcome

On the right track: Antiwar protesters in The '60s.Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC Photos

If only for Cliff Gorman as Father Daniel Berrigan before he was arrested, and David Alan Grier as Fred Hampton before he was shot, The ‘60s (Sunday and Monday, February 7 and 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) is worth a dumbfounded look. To the radical priest and the Black Panther, add a nosegay of flower children – Carnie Wilson, daughter of Beach Boy Brian, as Mama Earth on the Hog Farm commune; Jordana Brewster, granddaughter of Yale president Kingman, as a Barnard stormbird during Mark Rudd’s tantrum of the cadres; and Donovan Leitch, son of Dylan wannabe Donovan, as a pot-addled Haight-Ashbury rock musician – plus some post-traumatic-stress disorder after war crimes in Vietnam, and all you need to complete this Jackson Pollock splatter flick is a blur of politics and art, anarchy and co-optation, parody and self-righteousness, fab music, Tinkertoy sex, red-dwarf drugs, ad hoc class analysis, and gee-whiz Götterdämmerung.

And any docudramatic mini-series seeking to celebrate the idealism of the era, even as it wallows in the excess, could have been much worse. Maybe this one even wanted to be. Proposing to show us, from the parallel points of view of a white middle-class Chicago family and black folks besieged in the Mississippi Delta, everything that went down from the Freedom Rides to the Days of Rage, with pit stops at Watts and Woodstock, The ‘60s starts off as if it aspired to be “Party of Five Goes to China Beach” or “Buffy the Weatherperson.”

Katie Herlihy (Julia Stiles) is suspended from high school for dirty dancing and ends up begging for food for her fatherless child in the Summer of Love. Her jock brother Brian (Jerry O’Connell), when he doesn’t get a football scholarship to Notre Dame, joins the Marines and ends up shell-shocked in Vietnam. Her other brother, straight-A’s Michael (Josh Hamilton), graduates from the Catholic Left at Berrigan’s Loyola to the “Clean for Gene” McCarthy campaign, always carrying a torch for Sarah Weinstock (Brewster), the nice Jewish girl from the Upper East Side who’d really rather sleep with SDS firebrand Kenny Klein (Jeremy Sisto), who in his ugly turn will end up batching bombs in a Greenwich Village brownstone. Meanwhile, Emmet Taylor (Leonard Roberts) sees his preacher father (Charles S. Dutton) hosed down in Birmingham, burned down in Greenwood, and gunned down in Watts before reading Soul on Ice and starting a Panther breakfast program.

Michael and Sarah are, if not John Reed and Louise Bryant, at least Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. They talk cute by quoting Bob Dylan lyrics at each other. They even show up at the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan went electric. But then Michael and Sarah show up everywhere – stopping a troop train, levitating a Pentagon, getting wet with Grace Slick at Woodstock and thumped on with Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman at the 1968 Democratic Convention. As the two best-looking Blue Lagoonies in the mini-series, they’re obviously destined to mate. The only hitch is Sarah’s infatuation with the macho rubbish of Kenny Klein. And if for a minute you imagine that they won’t be able to resolve this problem, by both becoming what Grace Paley once called “a kind of medium-level worker in one tendency in the nonviolent direct-action left wing of the antiwar movement,” you have never watched television. Equally inevitable are Brian’s transformation into Ron Kovic in the Oliver Stone film version of Born on the Fourth of July and Katie’s naming her child “Rainbow.”

But it isn’t the fault of executive producer Lynda Obst, director Mark Piznarski, screenwriters Bill Couturie, Robert Greenfield, and Jeffrey Fiskin, or even such odd-couple consultants as Stanley Crouch and Wavy Gravy that those of us of a certain age have our own sixties tapes in our own loopy heads. Nor that sometimes those tapes aren’t even our own: Not so long ago, at the “No Regrets” memorial for Abbie Hoffman at the Palladium, watching home movies (of Brandeis, Mississippi, the Lower East Side, the Stock Exchange caper, the Grand Central Yip-In, and crossing state lines in an illegal frame of mind), I concluded that Abbie’s memory tapes had displaced my own. I remember Abbie, or Mailer, or Ginsberg, better than I remember me. This, too, is television: a kind of flushing.

Anyway, these memories, vintage newsreel snippets, and, above all, the astonishing music comb metaphors over bald spots in the mini-series. Not much of historical or symbolic importance has been omitted, except for maybe the Manson gang. As if on cue, Dutton integrates a lunch counter; Jeremy Sisto reads Frantz Fanon; Mario Savio and Cassius Clay hyperventilate; Lenny Bruce appears at Cafe Figaro or the Bitter End; Columbia is seized again, and so, bound and gagged, is Bobby Seale; LBJ calls it quits and Nixon is elected. And if, reeling from the ferocious right-wing counterassault in the current Culture Wars, we are inclined to blame ourselves for the fact that one portion of the New Left subscribing to a Castroite delusional system went Baader-Meinof and bananas, The ‘60s at least reminds us that they kept killing our best people; that after Jack, they murdered Malcolm, and after Malcolm, Martin, and after Martin, Bobby. That in Chicago it was guitars and bubble gum against guys in baby-blue riot helmets with flamethrowers and bazookas.

Even if we talked a lot of trash – and there’s no denying that it hurts to hear the recapitulations here – we have only to consult the Pentagon Papers to find out what the other side was saying so euphemistically about “sustained reprisal” and “mutually assured destruction.” You might recall the secret bombing of Cambodia. You might even compare the health-care policy of the Diggers with that of your HMO. For every Jerry Rubin (“Sirhan Sirhan was a Yippie!”) who went from shucking on the barricades to hustling on Wall Street, there were dozens of others like Michael and Sarah who would end up in tenants’ associations, ecology groups, and feminist co-ops; as disenthralled journalists, public-interest lawyers, and teachers in independent schools – even, perhaps, as executive producers of television series.

So what if The ‘60s is slick nostalgia? At least it’s Grace Slick nostalgia. And I can think of worse things to be nostalgic about than a generation of young people who refused to measure everybody by his or her ability to produce wealth, who were disinclined to punish or morally condemn anyone who neglected to prosper.

We Were Overcome