Film #1: 1969
reviewed October 17, 2011
Today we will be reviewing “1969″, which stars Robert Downey Jr., Kiefer Sutherland,Winona Ryder and Bruce Dern. It is written by Ernest Thompson, author of Academy Award winning film, "On Golden Pond".
Two college buddies, Ralph(Downey) and Scott (Sutherland), decide to "tune in,turn on, and drop out" at the height of the Vietnam War. The film contrasts American life in a sleepy, 1960's, small-town, Maryland with the adrenaline fueled, counter-cultural centers of the late 60′s. The action of "1969" opens on Ralph and Scott hitchhiking their way home from college on Easter weekend. They arrive home to a sunrise service which immediately ends when the two boys arrive. Scott's brother is being shipped off to Vietnam that very weekend, and we learn there is no love between "free to be you and me" Scott and his military supporting brother and father (Dern). We then meet Ralph's family, free spirit mother Ev (Joanna Cassidy) and sister Beth (Ryder). They are clinging on to each other and their addictions in the face of vanishing hope. After a Kent State modeled riot at the boys' college that places Beth in its epicenter, Ralph and Scott decide to pack up and head for the coast where they meet every 1960′s character available from our class history textbook. Enter the naked commune dwellers. The violence of the riot turns Beth against the war in Vietnam, which in turn leads to a very dark graduation speech. There is also a Downey Jr. “Less than Zero” -level emotional explosion in his underwear. The boys head back home at the request of a homesick and drafted Ralph to find Scott’s brother is MIA and his parents are drifting apart. Scott's dad is instead drifting towards Ev. Scott becomes fueled by anti-Nixon rage. Vandalism, arrests, and a draft-dodging run for Canada lead up to the grand finale. I don’t want to spoil the ending, you will have to go and rent it from your local Blockbuster.
I have mixed feelings about the film. As a history teacher, I was drawn to the constant stream of 1960′s references. Believe me when I tell you that in an hour and a half, the writer crammed everything about the 60's he could into the picture; moon landings, Bobby Kennedy, MLK, the march on DC, LSD, Beatles, and on and on. However, the saturation is problematic in that it becomes distracting. It was as if the film wanted to take an entire decade of change and tension and cram it into the 3 month arc of the film. I also had a really hard time believing that straight-laced, inhibited Scott (Sutherland) was a “free your mind” hippie. My biggest problem with Scott was that the writer seems to see the 1960′s in terms of a division between Doves or Hawks, but missed the 3rd option of the Counter-Culture Revolutionary. There are no references to SDS, SNCC, or even the Black Panthers. It would appear that this 3rd group would be more in line with Sutherland’s "intellectual- poetry reading-just say no to LSD-fight the system" character. Ryder’s character even begins to show those leanings in the end, but the wrap up is so quick and anti climatic to the building action that she is never given the chance to flush it out.
Not that this film is bad. Dern does a phenomenal job as a father who was trained to support his country no matter what, but who struggles because he also wants to think for himself. The scene in the kitchen when his marriage almost crumbles with the food being thrown by his wife, is a gut-punch. The pain that Dern conveys in his eyes is worth a second look at the scene. Also check out the scene in the cemetery where he clutches the folded flag like it is the only thing that has never abandoned him, a clear representation of the Americans that refused to stop supporting the war even though the reality of it was bleak. You can literally feel Dern deflating.
Downey Jr. puts in a great performance as well, adding his traditional quirks to bland character. Just the entrance into the church service is played in his typical 1980′s entrance where he has to be more chaotic and louder than everyone in the room. His knack for habitual slurring, the glint of mischief in those hangdog eyes, mixed with his enigmatic behavior are all on display in the scene. I say all this with awe and reverence, because is there any actor more deliciously committed to intensity in their roles than RDJ? Cassidy, who I have loved in every role she has played, does great work as a mother dealing with loss by attaching herself to whatever will make her feel something again; whether that is the bottle or hugs from other womens' husbands.
I am a huge fan of "Across the Universe" for its portrayal of the personal struggles within the counter-culture to transform the future while being tethered to the social statics of day to day living. It does a great job of helping the viewer remember that while these kids were out fighting the system, they were also doing laundry, eating meals, sleeping, and forming friendships. The surreal moments of that particular film don't necessarily come in the protest puppetry or the acid trips, but rather in the moments of quiet stillness like sitting around the family dinner table in Brookline, Massachusetts. It is emotionally jarring when Lucy sits in a phone booth in the middle of a riot while her mother tends to the family garden. It is a message that we talk about it in class, that family dinners and watching TV don't necessarily make the best stories to fill the history books, but they happened in the middle of all the turmoil. If "Across the Universe" is the image of revolution happening in the midst of tradition, then "1969" is about tradition happening in the midst of revolution. It tries to make a statement about how the suburbs couldn't keep out the message that was bleeding in from the college campuses where they had sent their children.
What this means in the larger ideas of 1988
The history of 1988 includes a great deal of source references that observe an America still dealing with the political and cultural pain of the Vietnam War. News stories exist about the children of Vietnam vets and Vietnamese women being resettled in the US, negotiations with Vietnam for news on missing soldiers, Jane Fonda's apologies, and more. Books were still being written, films were still being produced, TV shows and specials filled primetime with themes about the war and its aftermath. 1988 showed us that America was still reeling from the damage in the 20 years that had passed from the Tet offensive and the protests on the homefront. This film is speaking to those wounds and attempting to reflect on those who were impacted.
The message is good, and I would be lying if I pretended I didn’t tear up in the march at the end. I give it 6 stars, but would recommend better, less, 1960's jammed narratives of the Vietnam homefront such as “Across the Universe”. It felt like cramming for an AP test about the 60's at 12:00 the night before.
Here is what the New York Times had to say about "1969" in 1988 www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=940DE5DE1330F93BA25752C1A96E948260