Sixties bashing has been a popular sport in the last few years, in part because so many of the freedoms people fought for during that convulsively complex era are now taken for granted. Mark Kitchell’s first-rate documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, reminds us of how — and why — those freedoms had to be won. The movie begins with a superb reconstruction of the Berkeley Free Speech movement that took wing in 1964. For anyone too young to remember, it’s a revelation to see that many of the student ”radicals” were, in fact, passionately patriotic young men and women who had no idea there were so many restrictions on what they could say and where they could say it.
From there, the film expands into a generalized look at counterculture movements, but it never loses its bracing, clear-eyed tone. The 15 former activists interviewed provide down-in-the-trenches accounts of why they took up their various causes. The film doesn’t shrink from saying that many of the ’60s social-protest movements went too far. It demonstrates that by the end of the decade, protest had become a narcotic in itself. But only a movie that understands the ’60s as profoundly as this one has truly earned the right to say that. A-