An epic doc­u­men­tary ex­am­ines the legacy of the 1980s

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

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

in Bay­watch

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