PBS // 2011 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 4th, 2011
"The fascinating story of American idealism, folly, and above all, unintended consequences."
Alcohol is some nasty stuff. I remember clearly being horrified on reading that part of the reason your head hurts during a hangover is because your brain is actually shrinking away from the lining of your skull (due, largely, to dehydration and lack of glucose). Add to that the fact that alcohol features prominently in a number of car accidents and many instances of violence (sexual, domestic, and otherwise), and it becomes easy to see -- at least in principal -- why groups would be pushing for a complete ban on alcohol between the borders of our great nation. So, in 1919, the 18th Ammendment was added to our Constitution, and it went into effect in January 1920, prohibiting the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." I'd like to think that those behind Prohibition had good intentions, because in addition to banning the sale of alcohol, Prohibition had widespread negative consequences for our country. Because alcohol was illegal, it became the province of criminals. Gangs stepped in to meet the demand which no amendment could possibly sate, offering harder liquors (since they offered more bang for the buck) and less reliable product. A significant percentage of the population lost respect for the law as they turned to speakeasies as places of social gathering, especially women. Alcoholics found it difficult, if not impossible, to seek help. All this and more is the subject of Prohibition, the latest documentary from luminary Ken Burns (with the aid of Lynn Novick). With the usual mix of celebrity voiceover and archival materials, Burns and Novick turn the story of the Roaring Twenties into a vivid portrait of a nation undergoing tremendous change.
Broken up into three two-hour episodes, Prohibition (Blu-ray) tackles its subject using the variety of materials Burns has come to be known for. We get archival footage, photographs, letters, interviews, and voiceover. The cast includes a number of famous names: Adam Arkin, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Giamatti, Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, and Samuel L. Jackson (among others!). The show covers everything from Prohibition's roots in the post-Civil War era to its lasting impact on American culture. All three episodes are presented on their own discs:
* "A Nation of Drunkards"
* "A Nation of Scofflaws"
* "A Nation of Hypocrites"
Like his other documentaries (especially Baseball and Jazz), Prohibition allows Burns and his colleagues the opportunity to look at America from a number of different angles. Sure, most of us know the stories of the big-time, headline-grabbing gangsters (especially in Chicago), but the manufacture and importation of booze didn't stop in the Windy City. We also get to see how small-time distillers fared. Then, there's the ways in which Prohibition fueled popular culture. Suddenly the hip flask became, well, hip. Along with bobbed hair and swinging jazz, hard liquor became a calling card for an entire generation of youngsters. Finally, Prohibition had huge effects in the halls of power. Money, they say, is power, and thanks to Prohibition, a lot of criminals had a lot of money. Prohibition traces the corruption and influence that followed on the heels of the 18th Amendment.
That's just Prohibition proper. Prohibition also traces the how and the why of the 18th Amendment. These include the legitimate concerns of women's groups, who were tired of their husbands spending the food money on beer before getting violent, as well as the less-than-classy objections raised by the likes of the KKK against those filthy German immigrants and their foul brewing ways. The careful historical attention to Prohibition's origins is appreciated.
Despite this attempt at historical completeness, Prohibition is far from a dry historical documentary. Jazz, Baseball, and even The Civil War partisans may protest, but I think Prohibition is the most exciting Burns miniseries yet. Part of that is the show's running time -- half the length of his shorter series, and a third the length of his long ones -- and part of its down to the subject matter, which is easier to make exciting because of the scope of Prohibition and its gangster and pop culture ties. Then, there's the cast Burns and Novick assembled for the production, which might be the most varied for a Burns series yet. All the different famous voices keep the show moving, and they bring some of the drier material alive with their vocal interpretations.
In the early days of the Blu-ray format, seeing 1080i on the list of features was a bad sign, but now that the format has reached maturity, 1080i is nothing to be feared. That's a good thing, because Prohibition comes to Blu-ray with a set of 1.85:1 AVC encoded transfers in 1080i. For the most part, this set looks good, with well-restored archival materials and excellent-looking photographs. The interlaced nature of the transfers shows up occasionally, especially during pans across some of those photographs, but it's not bad considering the age of the material and the nature of this set. The sound mix is exactly what a documentary series of this type needs: it's clear and clean in the front channels where the voiceovers come through without any frills. There's not really much surround involvement or low end "oomph," but the period music sounds good and is well-balanced with the narration.
The extras center on material not included in the final series. We get eight different bonus scenes, and fourteen interview outtakes (totaling almost an hour of interview extras). Finally, there is a short featurette on the recording of the voiceovers. All of these extras are housed on the set's first disc.
It's hard to fault Prohibition for what it is, but it seems that the series desperately calls out for parallels to be drawn between more sharply Prohibition in the 1920s and the War on Drugs in our time. Perhaps it's enough to release the film now, when medical marijuana restrictions are relaxing and the Mexican drug cartels are killing more and more people each day, to show us that there are still lessons to learn from Prohibition.
Hi-def sticklers may be disappointed by the interlaced nature of the transfer, and the fact that no lossless audio option was included.
Although perhaps not as definitive as some longer series, Prohibition shows Ken Burns and Lynn Novick at the top of their game. The series is the perfect blend of informative and entertaining, and this Blu-ray set is an excellent way to experience the series.
Mix up a drink -- Prohibition is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
* Spanish (SDH)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Scenes