A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps Review – Excellent, Honest and Thought Provoking

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A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps, from First Run Features, presents the history of the Peace Corps, founded through Executive Order by President John F. Kennedy, and led in the early days by brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver.

Directed by Alana DeJoseph and narrated by Annette Bening, A Towering Task features interviews with many notable people who either served as volunteers or worked as staff for the Peace Corps including journalists Bill Moyers, Marco Werman, Maureen Orth, Peter Hessler, George Packer and Chris Matthews. Maria Shriver, daughter Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is also interviewed.

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Many former Peace Corps volunteers continued in Public Service including Senators Jay Rockefeller and Chris Dodd, Congresswoman Donna Shalala and Congressmen Joe Kennedy and Christopher Shays; State Senator Jason Carter and his grandmother Lillian Carter, mother to President Jimmy Carter and Ambassadors Vicki Huddleston and the late J. Christopher Stevens.

Netflix founder Reed Hastings; novelist Paul Theroux; home improvement specialist Bob Vila; and Hollywood director Taylor Hackford are also featured describing their experiences as Peace Corps volunteers and what it meant to them.

A Towering Task begins at the formation. It was the 1960s, and the beginnings of what would become known as the revolutionary 1960s. Presidential politics were front and center as the young Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, was rebranding American politics. His opponent former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. The two, for the first time in history reached the American public through television. The results of course with the young dashing senator and the older vice-president created a wave of youth interest which as the documentary points out was difficult for either candidate.

The shift came as days before the November 1960 election, when 10,000 students were waiting at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor when the Senator Kennedy arrived at 2:00AM in the morning, hoping the senator would address them.

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He did, and a youth movement was formed. The students followed him to an Ohio Campaign stop and presented him with a petition of more than 20,000 names of students who agreed to dedicated two years of their life in peace corps

The motivation for this push to spread good will through works to every nation in the world began during Kennedy's days as a senator came to him through a book, The Ugly American. So motivated to change this image President Kennedy, sent a copy to each of his senatorial colleagues explaining the idea of creating a program that would send the best and brightest American youth to nations that were being introduced to communism through Soviet representative.

The idea of two years of service in a foreign country to earn a pass on military service, which at that time registration for the selective military service or the draft, was required by all men on their 18th birthday, became the target of Nixon's anti-peace corps campaign message.

With just days before the election, the message fell on deaf ears. Kennedy won the election by a narrow margin and immediately set out to form the Peace Corps. It was January 1961. The newly appointed president, at his inauguration made famous the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

It was the time and season of change. By Executive Order the Peace Corps were established and Sargent Shriver, the President's brother-in-law, was appointed as the program's first director.

Within weeks the agency was established and in its first year, hundreds of volunteers were serving in dozens of countries.

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A Towering Task is named for the report filed by Sargent Shriver outlining the challenges of building this agency and completing the goal of ensuring the ideals of democracy, good will, and friendship were furthered throughout the world.

Moreover, as the documentary continues it moves through the six decades of challenges. Kennedy's assassination, the turbulent 1960s, Vietnam war, the pendulum swing of interest, global unrest, the fall of the Berlin wall, reeducating the educated those East German professionals whose history was fed, formed and taught under communist rule, and finally the worst possible nightmare for any Peace Corps volunteer, the murder of Katy Puzy, a whistle blower who informed authorities her colleague had raped students in his class.

As the agency is nearing its 60th anniversary, more than 200,000 Volunteers have served in over 140 countries. At the beginning of 2020, more than 7,300 Americans of all ages were serving their country and seeking to understand their place in the global community.

A Towering Task is narrated by Annette Bening. She fades behind the material and the direction of Alana DeJoseph. The historical information is followed by interviews of many recognizable leaders across all walks of life, who explain a bit about their Peace Corps experience.

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A Towering Task is excellent. It informs the viewer of a time, season and history of our world. It is interesting and remains a call to action ensuring the best of American ideals are presented throughout the world. Available on streaming platforms everywhere. See it.

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