“1969” (1988)

by A.J. Hakari

What’s a Blog-a-Thon? This blog-a-thon is a challenge; its participants have chosen films the other has not seen to watch and review.

September Blog-a-Thon criteria? Hidden ’80s gems.

Why did Marcey choose this for A.J.? “In my youth, I used to watch a lot of Robert Downey Jr. and Kiefer Sutherland. 1969 is an almost forgotten title from the both of them, and I am not sure why. It’s a good film, and I want more people to discover it or re-discover it. It is a film about many things, with the setting a core piece. It has a great cast, who all do a great job. It is worthwhile, and I hope it doesn’t remain an obscure title; it doesn’t deserve to be.”

And now…A.J.’s review…

Every decade seems to go through a phase of waxing nostalgic about what happened twenty years before it. In the Roaring 2010s, we’re seeing a few traces of ’80s love hanging around, but the ’90s are waiting in the wings, with their Pog collections and Surge bottles at the ready. But as the toys and cartoons of my youth are transformed into pitiful Hollywood tentpoles, 1969 is busy making an effort to relate its era’s great social upheaval to viewers on a relatively small scale. It’s not a very big movie in its scope, preferring an intimate storyline with a few characters over a sweeping chronicle of the many changes that struck America. Even with these modest goals, 1969 isn’t a huge success, but it was made in earnest and keeps any snarky, “I told you so” bits of commentary to a minimum.

Ralph (Robert Downey Jr.) and Scott (Kiefer Sutherland) are lifelong friends who couldn’t be anymore different. Scott is an idealist with a wide-eyed approach to what the world has in store, while Ralph is a reckless rogue cracking wise and experimenting with any narcotics he can get his hands on. But as the pals enter 1969 as college students with their whole lives before them, the change that’s been simmering all across the nation finally pierces their sheltered lives. The boys start to question their country’s escalating role in the Vietnam War, a cause Ralph’s sister Beth (Winona Ryder) gets behind as she develops feelings for Scott. But their clashing personalities make it inevitable that the guys are driven down different paths, leaving Scott to choose between bailing on his loved ones or risking his own future to stay and fight for theirs.

For as much as 1969 gets right about making a period drama, it violates a good deal of the “don’ts” as well. Debuting as a writer/director, On Golden Pond scribe Ernest Thompson gives us a balanced depiction of his story’s setting. He has some affection for the good old days, but he’s well aware of how reality was changing, such as when Scott’s war vet father (Bruce Dern) berates him for his opposition to serving in Vietnam. But in not letting the times overshadow the characters too much, Thompson ends up downplaying the era’s presence to a series of callbacks and events mentioned in passing. Hey, the moon landing’s on TV! Must be the ’60s! Lookee here, a nudist camp! There sure were a lot of those in the ’60s, huh?

My apologies for the smarm, but it’s during moments like these that I wished 1969 had painted itself over a broader canvas. It’s a perfectly decent buddy drama, driven by solid performances from Downey and Sutherland (even if the former is basically playing himself), but in the grand scheme of things, not much happens. Their characters go through the expected arcs, subplots are resolved just like you think they will (although some — like the strained marriage of Scott’s parents — go nowhere altogether), and the film ends with a plea for peace aimed at the Cold War dwellers of the ’80s. But Thompson’s fickle ability to ground us in the setting gradually weakens other aspects of the plot. The scene of Scott leading his hometown in protest near the end isn’t a culmination of the times being reflected so much as it’s just a place to stop at and roll the credits.

1969 is alright stuff, possessing the desire to make a difference even though it doesn’t apply the same passion to its execution. If anything, it’s commendable for not being overtly cynical, passing on rubbing our faces in past mistakes in favor of showing us that if we fought the good fight at one time, we can still fight today. Familiar and basic though it may be, I’d buy 1969‘s potential to inspire more than the flicks that wear their piousness on their sleeves.

(Be sure to read Marcey’s review of my recommendation, Shock Treatment, at her website, SuperMarcey.com!)

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