Ernest Thompson’s cinematic equivalent of selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. Not that there’s much big screen-ish here, as 1969 looks for all the world like an extremely well-cast TV movie. I was probably soft on the picture’s ample deficiencies at the time because the choice-picks soundtrack album was a mainstay for a number of years afterwards, a quality affair replete with the likes of Crosby Stills & Nash, Canned Heat, The Zombies, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Animals, The Moody Blues, Cream and Hendrix. But even coaxed by such accompaniment, Thompson can’t help but make a complete hash of his directorial debut.
Indeed, it’s no surprise he subsequently made a string of actual TV movies (one of them being another version of On Golden Pond, which previously earned him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1982). 1969 was, Thompson admitted, semi-autobiographical, whereby he is represented by Kiefer Sutherland’s Scott Denny; Thompson drove “across the country in a leaf-painted bus, seeing the world and ‘trying to find peace’”. In as unpersuasively cliché-strewn a way as this, though? I might buy that Thompson is attempting to depict the naïve youthfulness of those aping a movement, extolling learned hippiness rather than real dedication. Hence Scott being really very square, despite his protestations (“He was never young like me… He was in a hurry to get old. That’s not my trip” he says of his father Cliff, played by Bruce Dern – a casting choice that couldn’t be any more ironic had Kiefer’s actual dad been cast).
Indeed, it’s a wonder Thompson felt he had a story here, so soft is the content. That and his lack of stylistic acumen make any notional embrace of the era very flat, like a Waltons sixties but with slightly more tempestuous domesticity. Scott comments “The Sixties hadn’t really hit yet, even though they were almost over” in Culloch County, but he and best pal Ralph (Robert Downey Jr) hardly seem to be making the most of them in their travels. Ralph is decidedly unchilled, man, nervous of a Stars-and-Stripes joint and throwing one out of the window in order to persuade Ralph to concentrate on his studies. Easy Rider is showing at the local cinema, but I’m surprised the townsfolk even allowed it.
Scott gets quite angry when Ralph offers him some acid, and in a move testifying to a writer who never dropped the stuff, the latter has a really bad time; after stripping to his underpants and swing from the rafters, he appears to be convulsing in the manner of a junkie: “I OD’d one time. I accidentally flunked out of college. That doesn’t make me retarded”. No. The director perhaps, but not Ralph (the late Downey Jr’s run here of this and Less than Zero makes for a pointer to the wrong kind of later-career-informing research. There’d be more drugs in Air America).
The duo travel around but don’t really interact with anyone else other than some nudists; this is a very insular, isolated 1969, and Thompson staging a campus riot just as family members show up, to get accosted with batons, is silly in all the wrong ways. When Ralph professes to liking the Stones, you think, yes, at least they demonstrated he’s not into the dream and his only motivation is dodging the draft. But Scott’s ideals are much less convincing. Sutherland is playing the sensitive romantic, per the same year’s Young Guns (as opposed to the psycho Kiefer of Stand by Me and Lost Boys) and has the unfortunate air and appearance of an overeager, overfed chipmunk.
His flight to Canada is impeded by Ralph’s sister Beth (Winona Ryder), unaccountably besotted with Scott and fresh from a “rousing” graduation speech, saying “I don’t wanna runaway… I want you to stay with me and fight”. Sheesh. The consequence is an inappropriately polemical eulogy at his brother’s funeral (Nam, natch) in which everyone, including WWII veteran dad, marches on the jailhouse demanding Ralph’s release (he has been arrested for attempting to swipe his draft records). Perplexingly, Ralph is released. And exultantly, Scott announces that “In November 1969, 327 of us from Culloch County, including my father marched on Washington in protest of the war”.
Thompson suggested “It’s a wishful [ending]. I think it’s emotionally satisfying while it may be intellectually confusing“. I’d say it’s outright nonsensical, but there you go. Scott really seems not a little petulant, since his “rebellion” is so faint-hearted. When he tells dad “Don’t keep pushing me!” he’s just coming across as a surly brat. Which means, as unsympathetic as Cliff is, you don’t necessarily side against him.
The writer-director generally fares much better with the adults’ responses. Dern plays against type as rigid and remote, while Mariette Hartley is a standout as wife Jessie, unable to say goodbye to eldest Alden (Christopher Wynne) and shouting “Don’t die” to him, – he’s oblivious to her words – as he leaves on the coach. The later kitchen confrontation, where she tells the also inattentive and detached Cliff (“Are you mad at me?”) “No, I don’t seem to feel anything” is also well performed. And Joanna Cassidy as merry widow (and mother of Ralph and Beth) Ev is superbly randy, as Cliff discovers. Lines like “You little rat boy. You give your mother a big hug before I spank you” are surely improvised, as there’s nothing else in Thompson’s dialogue to suggest such gusto.
There’s also talk of revolution and Moon landings (“I see them on the Moon!” yells neighbour Marsha, played by Keller Kuhn). Trevor Willsmer in the Film Yearbook Volume 8, suggested the movie “overdoses on clichés and marketable nostalgia” and noted that Scott made “meaningful speeches that would make Groovy Wonderbender cringe”. The picture thus fully subscribes to the most superficially nostalgic reading of the decade, so forget any notions of it reflecting an engineered movement at the behest of the Tavistock Institute and its ilk.
Indeed, Thompson claimed “It was great. It was a magical time if you just surrendered yourself to it”. Unfortunately, 1969 contains none of that magic. As Sutherland said, it “was not a great movie by any stretch”. Unsurprisingly, then, the picture flopped, which did none of its stars any harm at all, as all were exceedingly prolific at that point (or becoming so that very year, in Ryder’s case). A disappointingly facile approximation of that decade’s end, then, and you’d be best to take an infusion of Bruce Robinson’s account a few year’s prior straight after. Great soundtrack album, though.