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PBS' 'American Experience: 1964' review: Smart, eloquent but incomplete

Boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali,

Boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, playfully hits The Beatles while at his training camp. From left: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. (Feb. 18, 1964) Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

THE SHOW "American Experience: 1964"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 8 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The year began just five weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and would be an epochal one. The Beatles came to America, and murders in Mississippi made national news. Meanwhile, a new president, Lyndon Johnson, launched his Great Society initiatives while his challenger, Barry Goldwater, resisted them. It all happened half a century ago.

MY SAY As the last members of the Greatest Generation leave the stage, they cede it to members of the most garrulous, introspective, narcissistic and self-absorbed generation -- mine. More often than not, we cast our lonely (and yes, self-satisfied) eyes back to that one year -- this one -- that was the fulcrum of our collective experience and idealism.

And what a year: It would launch both the national career of Ronald Reagan and the birth of campus activism. The year, 1964, as "1964" so eloquently and often persuasively establishes, had many such contravening cur-rents. Columnist and Goldwater historian Rick Perlstein sums it up best here when he says "the left and right were ready to kill each other over the meaning of the same word -- freedom."

"1964" does a particularly fine job of establishing the importance of the year to the Civil Rights movement -- Dave Dennis, Mississippi director of the Congress of Racial Equality, is superb in recounting the murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in that long-ago summer. But it often feels incomplete elsewhere -- nothing on the Cold War and barely any discussion of Vietnam (The Gulf of Tonkin incident when the USS Maddox had a running battle with three North Vietnamese gunboats is addressed.)

Boomers will be grateful that "1964" includes a fleeting discussion of TV, but the conclusions are laughable ("The Addams Family" as social commentary on neighborhood integration? Puh. Lease.)

But best of all here is legendary sports writer Bob Lipsyte's recollections of the time The Beatles met Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, a few days before he became heavyweight champion. The punchline is worth the whole two hours.

BOTTOM LINE Smart, eloquent but incomplete in parts.


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