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American Experience Season 17 Episodes

12 Episodes 2004 - 2005

Episode 1


Mon, Oct 4, 2004 120 mins

Documentarian David Grubin, who has profiled FDR and LBJ (among others) for "The American Experience," takes the measure of "RFK." A shy, if driven man, Robert Kennedy "wasn't built for the spotlight, he was built for the wings," says journalist Jack Newfield, and while John Kennedy was alive (covered in the first hour), that's where Bobby stayed---making certain that JFK remained in the spotlight. After Nov. 22, 1963, however, "we saw him grow," says civil-rights veteran John Lewis. Kennedy's famously tense relationship with LBJ was ruptured beyond repair by Vietnam, and he made the plight of the dispossessed his moral and political passion. Says Newfield: "He saw somebody hurting and he hurt."

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Episode 2

The Fight

Mon, Oct 18, 2004 90 mins

"The Fight" recalls the June 1938 heavyweight title bout between Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling, and assesses its political and social ramifications.

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American Experience, Season 17 Episode 2 image

Episode 3

Fidel Castro

Mon, Jan 31, 2005 120 mins

Fidel Castro's march through Cuba and the second half of the 20th century is chronicled by filmmaker Adriana Bosch, who has profiled four U.S. presidents for "The American Experience." Here, Cuban exiles and former Castro confreres, foreign-policy experts, a former Castro brother-in-law and his daughter Alina Fernandez paint a portrait of a dictator, a social reformer---and a survivor. "Castro," says longtime Cuba-watcher Wayne Smith, "is masterful at playing David to [the U.S.'s]Goliath."

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Episode 4

Building the Alaska Highway

Mon, Feb 7, 2005 60 mins

"Building the Alaska Highway" recalls the construction of the 1500-mile "shortcut to Tokyo" through Canada in 1942 by 11,000 U.S. troops (4000 of them black). It wasn't the Army's greatest World War II triumph, but it was one of the first, and it gave Americans, who feared a Japanese buildup in the Aleutians, a needed morale boost. This hour is light on military and engineering detail, and packed with proud GIs recalling mud, cold and toil.

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Episode 5


Mon, Feb 14, 2005 90 mins

Profiling Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana University zoologist whose "revolutionary picture of American sexuality" rocked the country in the late 1940s and early '50s. Filmmakers Barak Goodman and John Maggio ("American Experience: The Fight") interview Kinsey colleagues and biographers, along with people took part in his studies, to paint a portrait of an "unyielding" proponent of sexual freedom who practiced what he preached. Says sexologist Paul Gebhard, a Kinsey assistant: "He was a rebel."

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Episode 6

Mary Pickford

Mon, Apr 4, 2005 90 mins

Profiling Mary Pickford, the silent-screen "sweetheart" who blazed the trail to Hollywood and became "America's first superstar," as narrator Laura Linney calls her. Pickford (1893-1979) was also an astute businesswoman: She founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and her husband-to-be Douglas Fairbanks. But, as filmmaker Sue Williams stresses here, there was no glorious sunset. As Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield puts it, she was "the first has-been created by film."

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Episode 7

The Great Transatlantic Cable

Mon, Apr 11, 2005 60 mins

Cyrus Field's struggle to lay telegraph cables across the Atlantic in the 1850s and '60s is chronicled. When Field finally succeeded, in 1866, it marked "the annihilation of space and time, " says historian David Czitrom. But the 13-year effort---recalled here in re-creations and comments from historians and engineers---included many false starts and one spectacular failure. Still, says Czitrom, "he never let up."

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Episode 8

The Massie Affair

Mon, Apr 18, 2005 60 mins

"The Massie Affair" chronicles a 1931 Honolulu rape case involving a young white Navy wife that became even more serious when one of the acquitted Hawaiian defendants was later kidnapped and murdered. Although marital discord and social "honor" play into the story, it's mostly about stark racial injustice that touched even the White House. It uncovers, says narrator Blair Brown, "cold, hard truths about America and the people who ruled it."

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Episode 9

The Fall of Saigon

Mon, Apr 25, 2005 60 mins

"The Fall of Saigon" is the final episode of the multi-award-winning 1983 series "Vietnam: A Television History." Told in news clips and recollections by Vietnamese and Americans (including Gerald R. Ford and Henry Kissinger), the hour begins with the January 1973 peace treaty. It amounted to "a death sentence" for South Vietnam, says a South Vietnamese colonel. And when the end came, it was chaotic. "We really just cut and ran," recalls U.S. aide William LeGro.

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Episode 10

Victory in the Pacific

Mon, May 2, 2005 120 mins

Victory in the Pacific," a somber, introspective chronicle of the "embrace of death" the U.S. and Japan shared during the final year of World War II. Filmmaker Austin Hoyt focuses on the viciousness of the fighting, and the victory, he contends, resulted as much from the Soviet invasion of Manchuria as from the atomic bomb. Hoyt profiled Douglas MacArthur for "American Experience" in 1999.

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Episode 11

The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Mon, May 9, 2005 60 mins

"The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken" recalls "the first family of country music" in interviews with Carter relatives, music writers, and singers Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell. The tough early lives of A.P. Carter, his sister Maybelle and wife Sara were lightened by music, and their 1927 RCA audition proved to be "the big bang of commercial country music," says narrator Robert Duvall. But A.P. and Sara's marriage couldn't survive the turmoil that followed.

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Episode 12

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

Mon, May 23, 2005 90 mins

"Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst" chronicles the 1974 kidnapping of the Bay Area newspaper heiress by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, and the 19 months she spent as an "urban guerrilla." It's a surreal story, told in footage ranging from news clips to excerpts from the 1939 movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood." In addition, former SLA members tell it from their perspective and explore the roots of their radicalism. "We just felt that there was no future," says one.

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