As many of this site’s readers know, for the recently released book The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today, this author did a lot of work on the career of actor Tom Hanks. In 1993, on the set of the film Philadelphia, Hanks met music producer Gary Goetzman. A few years after that meeting, Goetzman and Hanks decided to expand their careers into producing movies: both feature films and documentaries. They set up a company called Playtone and began to churn out products that—if one understands who Hanks is—were reflective of both the actor’s personal psyche and his view of the American zeitgeist. That view was accentuated when, in 1998, Hanks first worked with Steven Spielberg on the film Saving Private Ryan. It was while working on this film that the two met and befriended the late historian Stephen Ambrose, who was a consultant on that picture.
As I wrote in my book, Ambrose turned out to have a real weakness for a historian: He manufactured interviews. Ambrose made his name, and became an establishment darling, due to his several books about Dwight Eisenhower. This included a two volume formal biography published in 1983-84. All of these books, except the first, were published after Eisenhower’s death in 1969. It was proven, by both an Eisenhower archivist and his appointments secretary, that Ambrose made up numerous interviews with the late president, interviews which he could not have conducted. (James DiEugenio, The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today, p. 46)) Late in his career, Ambrose was also proven to be a serial plagiarist by two different studies. (See David Kirkpatrick’s article in the NY Times, January 11, 2002; also “How the Ambrose Story Developed”, History News Network, June 2002)
But the worst and most revealing issue about Ambrose’s career was his switching sides in the attacks on James Bacque’s important book, Other Losses. Bacque had done some real digging into the military archives of World War II. He had discovered that the Americans had been involved in serious war crimes against German prisoners of war, and had later tried to cover it up. Bacque sent his manuscript to Ambrose in advance of publication. Ambrose had nothing but praise for it. (DiEugenio, p. 47) In 1989, before the book was to be published abroad, Bacque visited Ambrose at his home and the two went over the book in detail. When Other Losses was published in America, Ambrose at first stood by the book, which, quite naturally, was generating controversy. But after doing a teaching engagement at the US Army War College, Ambrose reversed field. First, he organized a seminar attacking the book. Then, as he would later do with Oliver Stone’s JFK, he wrote an attack article for the New York Times. (DiEugenio, p. 47)
As Bacque noted, the book Ambrose attacked was the same one the historian had praised in private letters to the author. It was the same book Ambrose read and offered suggestions to in the confines of his home. The difference was that the information was now public, and creating controversy. Bacque’s book was accusing the American military of grievous war crimes, including thousands of deaths, and since Eisenhower was involved in these acts, the pressure was on. Ambrose was the alleged authority on both Eisenhower and his governance of the American war effort in Europe. Could America have really done what the Canadian author was saying it did? To put it simply, Ambrose buckled. Under pressure from the military and the MSM, he did triple duty. Not only did he organize the panel and write the attack editorial, he then pushed through a book based on the panel. (See Bacque’s reply to this book)
Reflecting on this professional and personal betrayal, Bacque later wrote that he could not really blame Ambrose for it all, because the American establishment does not really value accuracy in the historical record. What it really wants is a “pleasing chronicle which justifies and supports our society.” He then added that, in light of that fact, “We should not wonder when a very popular writer like Ambrose is revealed to be a liar and plagiarizer, because he has in fact given us what we demand from him above all, a pleasing myth.” (DiEugenio, p. 48)
I have prefaced this review of Playtone’s latest documentary 1968: The Year that Changed America, because it is important to keep all of this information in mind during any discussion of Hanks and his producing career. Even though he did not graduate from college, he fancies himself a historian. Thus many of his films deal with historical subjects: both his feature films and his documentaries. Yet Hanks—and also Spielberg—have set Ambrose as their role model in the field. In my view, it is this kind of intellectual sloth and lack of genuine curiosity that has helped give us films like Charlie Wilson’s War, Parkland, and The Post. These films all tried to make heroes out of people who were no such thing: U.S. representative Charlie Wilson, the Dallas Police, and in the last instance, Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham. And by doing so, these pictures have mislead the American public about important events; respectively, the origins and results of the war in Afghanistan, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the position of the Washington Post on the Vietnam War. (For details on all of these misrepresentations, elisions, and distortions see Part 3 of The JFK Assassination.)
Since he wrote so often about Eisenhower, one of Ambrose’s preoccupations was World War II. He wrote at least a dozen books on that subject. As previously mentioned, Hanks and Spielberg took a brief vignette Ambrose had uncovered for his book Band of Brothers and greatly expanded and heavily revised it into the film Saving Private Ryan. (DiEugenio, pp. 45-46) From there, Hanks and Spielberg produced the hugely budgeted mini-series Band of Brothers. This was a chronicle of a company of American soldiers fighting in the European theater until the surrender of Japan. In addition to these two dramatic presentations, Hanks has produced three documentaries on the subject of American soldiers fighting in Europe. As anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan knows, that film is largely based on the allied landing at Normandy in 1944. Ambrose wrote extensively on that event. In fact, one of his books was titled D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. And in the films of Hanks and Spielberg, the import of that title is also conveyed: that America defeated the Third Reich.
The problem with this is quite simple: it’s not true. Any real expert on World War II will inform you that it was not America that was responsible for the defeat of Hitler. It was the Soviets. And D-Day was not the climactic battle of that war. That took place in 1942 at Stalingrad, and to a lesser extent in 1943 with the tank battle at Kursk. Both of those titanic battles took place prior to the Normandy invasion, and Hitler gambled everything on them. His invasion of Russia in 1941 consumed 80% of the Wehrmacht, over three million men. To this day, it is the largest land invasion in history. (DiEugenio, p. 454) When this giant infantry offensive was defeated at Stalingrad, Hitler tried to counter that defeat with the largest tank battle in history at Kursk. This battle ended up being more or less a draw; but it was really a loss for Hitler since he had to win. The Germans lost so many men, aircraft and tanks on the Russian front that the rest of the war was a slow retreat back to Berlin.
Due to the Cold War, the historical establishment in America largely ignored these facts. Like Ambrose, they chose to glorify and aggrandize what commanders like Eisenhower had done in Europe and, to a lesser extent, what Douglas MacArthur achieved in the Pacific. In both films and TV, Hollywood followed this paradigm. Pictures like The Longest Day, Anzio, and Battle of the Bulge were echoed by small screen productions like Combat, The Gallant Men, and Twelve O’clock High. Parents bought their children toy weapons and they played games modeled on these presentations of America crushing the Nazis.
The social and historical problem with all this one-sidedness in books, films and network television was simple. It contributed to a cultural mythology of American supremacy, both in its military might and moral cause. That pretense—of both might and right— was slowly and excruciatingly ground to pieces in the jungles of Indochina. This is an important cultural issue that Ambrose, Hanks and Spielberg were not able to deal with in any real sense. I really don’t think that they ever actually confronted it. If one can make a film so weirdly lopsided as The Post, then I think one can say that, for whatever reason, it’s just not in them. After all, Hanks is 61, and Spielberg is 71. If you don’t get it after a combined 132 years, then its probably too late. (This reviewer did some research into both men’s lives to try and ponder the mystery of this obtuseness. For my conclusions, see DiEugenio, pp. 42-44, 405-12)
This brings us to the latest Hanks/Goetzman historical documentary for CNN. It is called 1968: The Year that Changed America. HBO is the main outlet for the Playtone historical mini-series productions, e.g., John Adams, Band of Brothers, The Pacific. Cable News Network is the main market for their historical documentaries. This includes Playtone’s profiles of four decades—The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, and The Nineties, and their awful documentary The Assassination of President Kennedy. This last was broadcast during the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder in 2013. The two main talking heads on this program were Dan Rather and Vincent Bugliosi. One would have thought that Rather had so discredited himself on the subject that he would not appear on any such programs ever again. Playtone did not think so. Either that or Hanks was unaware of the discoveries of the late Roger Feinman. Feinman worked for CBS and exposed their unethical broadcast practices in both their 1967 and 1975 specials, in addition to their subsequent lies about them. (See Why CBS Covered Up the JFK Assassination) I would like to think Hanks unaware of all this. But after sustained exposure to his output, I am not sure it would have made any difference.
This lack of scholarly rigor is reflected in some of the talking heads employed in 1968: The Year that Changed America. There is a crossover with that recent documentary bomb, American Dynasties: The Kennedys. (See my review) So again we get writers like Pat Buchanan, Tim Naftali and Evan Thomas. But in addition, we get Rather, plus the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks, former Nixon appointee Dwight Chapin and Hanks himself. There have been many books written about that key year of 1968, but this documentary does not utilize most of the recent releases by authors like Richard Vinen, or even Laurence O’Donnell. Instead, it relies on authors who wrote their books long ago; for example, Mark Kurlanksy, whose book was published in 2003, and Charles Kaiser, who first published his volume in 1988. Readers can draw their own conclusions about these choices.
The four-hour series is divided up by seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. It begins with Rather discussing the fading presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He delivers the usual platitudes about LBJ’s passage of some good domestic legislation like Medicare, but how this was outweighed by the war in Vietnam. In addition to this standby cliché, the program misses a grand opportunity to elucidate a key point about that war. In 1966, author Michael Arlen termed it “the living room war”. This is because reporters on the scene were allowed almost unfettered access to military operations. This approach brought the war’s brutality into the home front. The Pentagon understood this was a liability, so in later wars, this was greatly curtailed. What took its place was the so-called press junket or pool: certain journalists were given restricted access accompanied by escorts. They reported back to their colleagues and that is how the news was distributed. To put it plainly, because of Vietnam, war reporting has now become controlled. This technique was used extensively during Operation Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq (e.g., the siege of Fallujah).
The film’s second lost opportunity concerns the fact that, by 1968, Johnson had escalated the Vietnam War to almost unfathomable heights since he had taken office in 1963. What made that worse is that he had run on a peace platform in 1964. In that campaign he had characterized his opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, as the hawk on Vietnam. As Frederick Logevall noted in his book, Choosing War, if anyone had promised anything during that campaign, Johnson had promised the American people there would be no wider war. But not only did LBJ hide his true intentions in 1964, he also hid the fact that, unlike President Kennedy, he was determined not to lose in Indochina. (Logevall, p. 94) The fact that he had deceived the American public in 1964, then escalated the war to the point of inserting 500,000 combat troops in theater, while instituting Rolling Thunder, the largest aerial bombardment campaign in military history—all of this was too much of a reversal. Especially when it was accompanied by a draft, and resistance to that draft. In this reviewer’s opinion, this film downplays or ignores all of these key points. Yet they are all crucial in explaining why Johnson had become so unpopular in 1967 and 1968. To have Dan Rather, not Logevall, address this issue reveals early how honest this program is going to be.
We then cut to the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet offensive. Philip Caputo talks about the former, Hanks discusses the latter. Surprisingly, the program makes no attempt to link the two attacks. Many analysts of the war, like John Prados, have posed the questions: Was Khe Sanh a diversion for Tet? Or was Tet a diversion for Khe Sanh? Today, the consensus seems to be the former. Khe Sanh was in an extreme, almost isolated northern part of South Vietnam and was under siege by the regulars in the North Vietnamese army. Most of the Tet uprisings were in the south and were conducted by a combination of the Viet Cong supported by about 60 to 70,000 North Vietnamese regulars. The commander of the northern army, Genral Giap, later said that Khe Sanh itself was not important, but only served as a diversion to draw American forces away from population centers in the south, including Saigon. (See the essay “The Battle of Khe Sanh”, by Peter Brush.) Not only is this important issue not addressed, but the program again utilizes another cliché: namely, that Tet was a military defeat but such a shock that it succeeded psychologically.
The reviewer begs to disagree. Militarily, what Tet revealed was two crucial points. The first was that the three-year escalation by Johnson, as supervised by General William Westmoreland, had been a failure. No major city in South Vietnam was secure from attack, not even the American embassy in Saigon. The enemy was everywhere and was armed and ready to kill. The Westmoreland/Johnson strategy of wearing down the opponent through a war of attrition had been misguided and pretty much useless. Secondly, it showed that the fabricated country of South Vietnam was a hollow shell. Without American troops, Tet would have probably collapsed the Saigon government. Johnson and Westmoreland had built no effective independent fighting force there. It was the exposure of these two failures that cashiered both Johnson and Westmoreland. On top of that, it stopped any further troop escalation of the war.
A third result of Tet—also ignored by the program—was that it showed the almost astonishing lack of intelligence America had on the enemy. As CIA professionals like Ralph McGehee have written, the surprise of the Tet offensive was probably one of the greatest intelligence failures in American military history. Yet it did not seem to hurt the career of the CIA station chief in Saigon, Ted Shackley.
The complement to this North Vietnamese success was that the American military was disintegrating. In fact, the My Lai Massacre took place in March, 1968. If the reader can believe it, I could detect no mention of this atrocity in this four-part documentary. I also could find no mention of what My Lai was probably a part of, namely Operation Phoenix. This was the CIA’s systematic and brutal program to torture and kill civilians who were suspected of being Viet Cong. Reporters like Seymour Hersh had denied My Lai was part of the Phoenix Program. But later authors like Doug Valentine have discovered new evidence which indicates it was. (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, p. 367)
In addition to these shortcomings, there is almost no analysis of why President Johnson decided not to run in 1968. The program offers up the fact that Senator Eugene McCarthy had done well against LBJ in the New Hampshire primary—something that we all know and is about as sophisticated and penetrating as a high school history textbook. The program does not mention the now famous meeting of the so-called Wise Men that Johnson called after the Tet offensive. This meeting was attended by some outside luminaries like former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and General Omar Bradley. Johnson brought in a military briefer. The briefer tried to explain how Tet was a military loss for the communists. At this point, former Secretary of State Acheson got up and walked out. After, a Johnson aide called and asked why he left. Acheson replied that he would not sit through more canned Pentagon briefings. He wanted to see the raw reports and talk to people on the ground. After this call, LBJ sent Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford over to the Pentagon to look at those reports and interview the commanders. After about two weeks of review, Clifford—who had been a hawk—now decided the war was hopeless. He advised Johnson to seek a negotiated settlement. What makes this key episode surprising by its absence is that Evan Thomas is the co-author of the book the information first appeared in. Today, Thomas has become a hack. But in 1986, he and Walter Isaacson wrote an interesting book. (The Wise Men, pp. 683-89; see also Todd Gitlin, The Sixties, pp. 303-04)
The other reason that Johnson decided to step down was first conveyed through journalist Jules Witcover’s book 85 Days, a chronicle of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign. After Senator Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary and Robert Kennedy’s announcement to enter the race, Johnson’s men on the ground in Wisconsin predicted he had no chance of winning the state primary. (Gitlin, p. 304; Milton Viorst, Fire in the Streets, p. 419) That is how unpopular LBJ had become. Indeed, realizing he had no chance of winning, authors like Robert Dallek and Joseph Palermo have shown that Johnson now schemed of ways to deprive Bobby Kennedy of both the nomination and a victory in November. Again, Dallek is one of the interviewees, but apparently this was too hardboiled for the Playtone scenario.
After Vietnam, the second major subject the film portrays is the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that Martin Luther King was part of in March and April of 1968. It was this participation that led to King’s assassination on April 4th. Since this is Hanks and Goetzman, there is no discussion of any of the suspicious circumstances that took place that made his murder possible. Rather, the program uses the late Rev. Billy Kyles as a witness, a man who some believe may have been part of the set up to kill King. (See The 13th Juror, pp. 521-28) There is only a brief mention that, in 1967-68, King was trying to expand his movement beyond civil rights, of how this strained his relations with his more conservative political allies and how it was not enough for the more radical elements.
The program then breaks from straight political history into a segment on African-American singers James Brown and Diana Ross. It thereafter cuts to the 1968 Academy Awards, where the Best Picture Oscar was won by the film In the Heat of the Night, a tricky race-relations police mystery. If the reader can fathom it, the program then follows with a few moments on the science-fiction film Planet of the Apes. Author Rick Perlstein says something like, well the riots in the cities were reflected in the destruction of the Statue of Liberty at the end of that film. I will not comment on the silliness of that cultural comparison. Except to say that this is Playtone.
Instead of the sci-fi interlude, I wish the program would have given more time to the establishment and aftermath of the Kerner Commission. As a result of the terrible race riots in Watts, Chicago, Newark and Detroit, President Johnson appointed Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois to chair an 11-member panel to study the causes and possible cures for these riots, which had taken the lives of scores of citizens. That 1968 report ended up being a national bestseller and was one of the most acute and candid analyses of the race problem written in that era. It revealed that police brutality instigated many of the riots and that the underlying issues were failed housing and education programs. It also assailed the media for having almost no insight into the causes of the conflagrations. The report’s most memorable quote was, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate but unequal.” The most notable aspect of this remarkable document is that, after appointing the commission, Johnson ignored the report. This was the beginning of the policy that White House advisor Patrick Moynihan and President Richard Nixon would later formalize as “benign neglect” toward the race problem. (Viorst, p. 508) Needless to say, one month after the report was published, over a hundred riots broke out in the wake of King’s assassination.
The third large event that the film describes is the entry into the Democratic race for the presidency by Robert Kennedy. Tim Naftali says that Kennedy did not enter until Johnson had been already wounded by McCarthy in New Hampshire. As several authors have noted, Bobby Kennedy had been having discussions on whether to announce his candidacy for over a month prior to the New Hampshire primary. As journalist Jules Witcover wrote, he had decided to enter the primary race prior to New Hampshire. (Chapter 2 in the e-book version of Witcover’s 85 Days, specifically p. 70) But he did not announce until after because he did not want that announcement to have any effect on that state primary. The film then depicts Kennedy in Indianapolis announcing the news of King’s murder to an awaiting crowd, and his prominent role in helping Coretta King arrange the funeral in Atlanta.
The student riots at Columbia are mentioned and depicted visually, but their anti-war origins are bypassed. One of the students involved, Bob Feldman, had discovered the university was supporting the war effort through its association with the Institute for Defense Analysis. The film also does not deal with the unusual bifurcation of that demonstration. The SDS students were dealt with separately from the university’s African-American demonstrators. The former were motivated by Columbia’s association with the war; the latter by the encroachment by the university into the nearby lower class area of Morningside Heights and the construction of a gym they felt would be segregated. The Columbia demonstration ended with the NYPD assaulting the students: over 100 were injured and nearly 600 were arrested. As author Todd Gitlin noted, the MSM—particularly the New York Times and Newsweek—turned against the students and did not denounce the brutality the police used in expelling them from the campus. (Gitlin, pp. 307-08)
The film now begins to posit the two figures of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in opposition to these student and race disturbances. The series never makes explicit what was clearly the political objective of both presidential candidates: To capitalize on these inner city bonfires—over one hundred cities erupted in riots after King’s murder—in order to exploit the issue of “law and order” for political purposes. The idea was to ignore their underlying causes and exalt the effort of the police to stamp them out, which was made easier by LBJ ignoring the Kerner Commission. For example, Nixon began to cultivate a Southern Strategy around the race riots issue. Kevin Phillips, a Nixon strategist at the time, was open about this later. He had noted that in 1964, although Senator Barry Goldwater had lost in a landslide, the conservative Republican presidential candidate took five states in the south. The strategist chalked this up to the fact that Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Phillips concluded that his party should enforce the Voting Rights Act because, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” He then added that without that aspect, “the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.” (NY Times, May 17, 1970, “Nixon’s Southern Strategy”) For whatever reason, Phillips is not on the program to explain this strategy.
A good way to have crystallized this moral and political quandary would have been to contrast the Nixon/Phillips strategy with what Bobby Kennedy was faced with in late 1963. The first scene of John Bohrer’s book about RFK depicts the Attorney General contemplating a letter of resignation to his brother in November of 1963. Kennedy felt that he had been too strong on the issue of civil rights and would now lose the entire south for JFK in the upcoming election. (The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, p. 1) In other words, since the 18 previous presidents had ignored the issue and allowed segregation and discrimination to fester in the south, when Bobby Kennedy faced the issue directly, white backlash had been unleashed. This painful moral and political issue is not addressed in this Hanks/Goetzman production.
The race for the Republican nomination is also outlined. Richard Nixon had a well-planned, well-organized campaign and he got in early. His two rivals were Michigan governor George Romney and the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. In 1967, Romney made a bad mistake for a Republican: He told the truth about Vietnam. In explaining his early support for the war, he said he had been brainwashed by the army about it. (Gitlin, p. 297) This eventually forced him to leave the field in February. Rockefeller vacillated and did not enter the race until the end of April. Considering that tardiness he did fairly well, coming in second in the delegate count at the Miami convention. California Governor Ronald Reagan challenged Nixon in some of the primaries but only won in his home state. Spiro Agnew, the governor of Maryland was nominated for Vice President, reportedly on the strength of a scolding delivered to civil rights demonstrators. (Gitlin, p. 132)
As many commentators have stated, this race constituted a milestone for the Republican Party. Nixon’s victory and the failure of Romney and Rockefeller to effectively challenge him from the center marked the beginning of the end of both the moderate and liberal wings of the GOP represented, respectively, by politicians like Senator John Sherman Cooper and Senator Jacob Javits. The next Republican to win the White House would be the man who challenged Nixon from the far right, Ronald Reagan. This historical landmark is only passingly noted in the film.
In dealing with Bobby Kennedy’s June victory in California, the program has Tim Naftali say words to the effect that when Kennedy exited the Embassy Room and walked through the pantry, Sirhan Sirhan was waiting for him. It’s comments like this that keep Naftali on these programs. As anyone who has studied the RFK case knows, Sirhan was escorted into the pantry by the infamous Girl in the Polka Dot Dress after he shared coffee with her. Or as Sirhan himself said, “Then she moved and I followed her. She led me into a dark place.” (Shane O’Sullivan, Who Killed Bobby, p. 115) The program then shows some film of the aftermath of the shooting. In relation to Sirhan, who was being pummeled, one person cries out, “We don’t want another Oswald!” That exclamation bridges a five-year national psychic chasm extending from Dallas to Los Angeles.
Kennedy’s death is followed by the subsequent mass at St Patrick’s in New York, featuring Ted Kennedy’s memorable eulogy. We then see the famous railroad car journey from New York to Washington where reportedly two million spectators lined the tracks to say good-bye and pay their respects to the senator. This touching moment is then dissipated by Hanks coming on and saying words to the effect: And that was the end of 1968. No Tom, that was the end of the second phase of the sixties, and for all intents and purposes it closed the promise of the decade down. The first phase of the sixties are sometimes termed the Camelot years, from 1960-63. It was brought to an end in Dallas in 1963. The second phase of the decade was the angry sixties, finished off by Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination in Los Angeles. The murders of both King and RFK were the last spasms of the once promising and hopeful decade. After this, American youth escaped into drugs and psychedelic rock epitomized by Woodstock in 1969. That sensational decade was therefore literally shot to death.
During Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington, many inhabitants of Resurrection City, the site of the Poor People’s March, journeyed over to pay their last respects. This was fitting in more than one respect, because it was Kennedy, through Marian Wright, who had given King the idea for that Poor People’s March. (Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, pp. 911-12) The film does not note that irony. Nor does it note that Tom Hayden, who was about to lead the demonstrations in Chicago, was weeping in a pew during the requiem mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Schlesinger, p. 956)
And that would have been a good lead-in to the film’s presentation of the disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey had entered the race, but had bypassed competing in any primaries. In 1968, it was still possible to amass a large amount of delegates without going the primary route. Because he was closely associated with President Johnson, Humphrey—unlike Kennedy and McCarthy—had not denounced the war in public. On the contrary, as John Bohrer wrote, he had attacked Kennedy for offering diplomatic solutions to end the conflict. (The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, pp. 271-74) As the film notes, after the death of RFK, McCarthy essentially slid off the grid. There really was no genuine anti-war alternative to Humphrey in Chicago. And this was the cause of the demonstrations and rioting that took place there. Unlike what the film conveys, while the riots were ongoing, the networks did not really cover them very much. For instance, out of 19 hours of coverage, NBC only showed 14 minutes of the demonstrations and police beatings. (“Lessons from the Election of 1968”, The New Yorker, January 8, 2018)
Resurrection City and the Poor People’s March had failed without King. And, as many have observed, without RFK there, the Democratic Party split apart in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley was determined to show that, amid the chaos, he was in charge. The police even raided McCarthy’s headquarters at the Hilton Hotel. (Gitlin, p. 334) Humphrey won the nomination, but he was a severely wounded candidate. He did not announce his support for a bombing halt and negotiations until the last month of the campaign. McCarthy would not endorse him until the last week. He was gaining rapidly at the end, but he fell just short. The film tries to say that Illinois, which went for Nixon, made the difference. But doing the arithmetic in the Electoral College, that is not correct. Nixon still would have won. The difference was probably the Wallace campaign.
To the film’s credit, it does mention the October Surprise of 1968: that is, Nixon’s actions through Republican lobbyist Anna Chennault to sabotage Johnson’s attempt to get negotiations going in Paris between Saigon and Hanoi. The subterfuge turned out to be effective and it might have cost Humphrey the election. But the film does not ask the next logical question. Since Johnson found out about Nixon’s subversion while it was in progress, why did he not make it public? Johnson also had evidence that the Greek junta had funneled Nixon $500,000 during his campaign. (NY Times, April 12, 1998, “Lone Star Setting”) This was clearly a bribe. Did Johnson not want Humphrey to win? In fact, as Sean Wilentz reported in the aforementioned article, Johnson actually preferred Nelson Rockefeller as his successor.
The film ends with what one would expect of Hanks. Not with Nixon and the premature end of the sizzling Sixties, but with 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 missions, the latter of which orbited the moon. Hanks has always idealized those space missions. And he has always ignored their prohibitive costs and the fact that they ended up in the Challenger catastrophe. Which pretty much ended the wild ideas about manned space flights. This contravenes the film’s idea that somehow Apollo 8 redeemed the horrible disappointments and reversals of 1968, which helped bring about the coming of Richard Nixon. And neither does a film culture that went from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Those last two films treat the issues of women’s rights and black identity only a couple of notches below the depth with which In the Heat of the Night did. On the issue of race, I much preferred the quiet simplicity of Nothing But a Man.
In sum, this is a thoroughly mediocre rendering of a tumultuous year. Mediocre in every way, including aesthetically. It is almost as if Adam Curtis and the daring things he did with documentary form in The Power of Nightmares never happened. What Playtone does here is simply slap together archival footage with people talking. Which would not be bad if the talking heads delivered original or insightful commentary. But they don’t. Not even close. And that is a real shame since what happened in 1968 casts a very long shadow. A shadow that cuts well into the new millennium.