DIARY OF A DECADE
An epic documentary examines the legacy of the 1980s
IF the 1960s was the decade of change, and the 70s the one taste forgot, then the 80s — at least according to this monumental 10-part series from National Geographic, simply called The 80s — was the decade that made us. And, no, they don’t mean made us behave in the silly ways we did, such as wearing awesome-sized shoulder pads and feathered hair as an assertion of newly acquired female power, or wasting hours with Rubik’s Cube-induced headaches so severe we had to go to bed, or even calling everyone ‘‘ brother’’ and living by WrestleMania star Hulk Hogan’s three ‘‘ demandments’’: train, pray and take vitamins. In the 80s, Hulk was big.
No, this mammoth piece of documentary TV looks back entertainingly at the cultural, political and especially the technological events of the decade with an eye to how those developments inform our lives today. It really asks: is the 80s the lens through which we see our decade now? (Of course, the series means the American 80s.) The mobile phone, the computer, the VCR and the cable news channel all came of age in the 80s and Tim Berners-Lee led the development of the worldwide web at the end of the decade. All the marvels of what we now call the digital revolution were spawned by the gadgets and inventions of the 80s. And this series, more an event in some ways than a mere TV show, tells the story of that decade from the perspective of the unknowing history makers.
The program, the latest in a new format titled the mega-doc, was produced by Nutopia, the British company founded by former BBC2 controller Jane Root in 2008. Her inspired idea was to make and sell costly super-sized documentaries, which would act as standout marketing events, to US cable channels. Her first production was America: The Story of Us for the History Channel, watched by 40 million people in the US, followed by Mankind: The Story of All of Us, also for History.
All Root’s productions are epic in scale, expensive, and retell significant moments dramatically. In the case of The 80s, narrated by Richard E. Grant, these moments include the birth of the Sony Walkman and the way Miami became a drug-dealing haven. ‘‘ It’s about presenting deep thinking in an accessible way,’’ Root says. ‘‘ Don’t skimp on the intellectual work; then use every trick in the book to make it look amazing.’’ She says her shows are paced for audiences who also watch superhero movies, with their cinematic energy and visual style. There’s an almost comic-strip use of identifying graphics and decorative visuals: trendy slogans, words and expressions from the decade zoom about the screen. Jolts of period music provide nostalgic breakers (as doco-makers call them) between moments, along with judiciously inventive computergenerated imagery.
This is intercut with the archival footage and many artfully photographed talking heads, often seen in extreme close-up, who speak in witty chunks, sometimes like headlines or pointers. They include Jane Fonda, Michael J. Fox, Oliver Stone, Joan Collins, David Hasselhoff, Calvin Klein and Linda Evans as well as less celebrated journalists, newspaper editors, broadcasters and commentators, such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Popular Mechanics boss Jim Meigs.
In a kind of parody or salute to the iconography of master documentarian Ken Burns, Root has her studio cameras in constant motion, zooming in and out and tracking across all her found imagery. It’s almost impossible to lose interest and, in a way, this technique echoes our own frenetic, comprehensively wired lives. Of course, that also means that we are so switched on to the aesthetics that any critical analysis of the show’s arguments becomes a little irrelevant.
Root uses the US’s surprising defeat of the Soviet Union in the men’s hockey finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics as a jumping-off point, the so-called ‘‘ miracle on ice’’, when the young Americans took down the mighty Red Machine. It was one of those rare sporting achievements that transcend sport. The two hockey games that comprise the ‘‘ miracle’’ — the 4-3 win over the Soviets and the 4-2 gold medal clincher against Finland — are credited with lifting Americans from a decade of gloom and despair, reviving patriotism and foreshadowing a national renewal. ‘‘ That was depression in Russia," beams a skeletal Larry King, one of the interviewees. ‘‘ The sales of vodka went up.’’
Grant’s narration reiterates that in 1980 the US was emerging from a troubled decade. ‘‘ The world was running out of food, fossil fuels, energy, but most of all we were running out of the future,’’ he says in that crisp way of his. ‘‘ America feels under attack, Japanese imports have invaded the highways and electronic stores, an ayatollah wants to turn off their oil and the Soviet Union is turning the Cold War hot.’’
The 70s had been marked by an ugly end to the Vietnam War, the demoralising Watergate spectacle, rampant inflation, unemployment and an energy crisis. As the Lake Placid Olympics opened, 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran, their nation seemingly helpless against student radicals. The line commonly associated with the Miracle on Ice is: ‘‘ It gave the country a reason to feel good again.’’
It’s a scintillating opening to the series, establishing the style of presentation and the political and social context. The episodes, though roughly chronological, are organised by theme. ‘‘ That’s often how I like to make shows, so that you feel like you’re on a journey, but you slot things in,’’ Root told magazine Mental Floss. But determining the balance of the episodes — how much weight should be given to political events such as the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan as against more fun things, such as the development of the damned Rubik’s Cube — was key, too.
‘‘ That was a long discussion,’’ Root said. ‘‘ We went through phases where [we said]: ‘ Let’s make it all super fun’, and then we went through phases where ‘ oh, we’ve got to make
Clockwise from left, Hulk Hogan; Jane Fonda in a
fitness video; boomboxes; and David Hasselhoff