What happened to Judge Brendan Babish in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas. It came home with him and it itches and burns.
"This is not a sensible place to build a city."
When Las Vegas was founded, it was a nondescript stop on the trans-continental railway. Then Nevada legalized gambling and Vegas became a convenient place for the migrant workers who were constructing the Hoover Dam to lose their paychecks over the weekend. In 1941, gangster Bugsy Siegal came to town and opened The Flamingo just outside city limits (to avoid a slot tax). The Flamingo was designed to be a glamorous nightclub, in the style of those along Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. This ushered in Las Vegas' new identity as a tourist destination for the discerning American Playboy. Along with the huge influx of money came organized crime, loosened morals, and B-list entertainers. The combined effect of these put the former shanty town on the fast track towards becoming a city of pure evil that sucks the soul of man into a vortex of sin and degradation.
Only a few minutes into this American Experience DVD, during the introduction where PBS recognizes all the corporations that provide funding for their programs, there are the usual suspects: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual, Scotts, etc. But there are two unique funders for Las Vegas: An Unconventional History: University of Nevada—Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. I quickly became concerned that there might be a conflict of interest here. Would entities created to promote a city with a dubious (or "unconventional") history pressure the filmmakers to downplay the enormous human tragedy that is necessary to fund the glitz and glamour that makes Las Vegas so appealing in the first place? After watching the documentary, I can answer equivocally: sort of.
Las Vegas: An Unconventional History neither serves as an exposé of the shadier dealings behind the city's rise, or a chronicle of the widespread financial damage gambling has wrought on frequent visitors to Vegas. That said, the documentary does not ignore these issues. There is no attempt to hide the bevy of illegal activities, both violent (the murder of competitors, the maiming of card cheats) and merely corrupt (tax-evasion, bribery of public officials) employed by convicted criminals and violent gangsters during the city's ascension. However, these crimes are discussed in an almost light-hearted, wink-wink sort of way, as if to say: What do you expect? This is Vegas.
Additionally, there are also cursory profiles of individuals who were mangled in the combine of the Las Vegas dream: a construction worker who robbed a bank to pay down his gambling debt; a single mother living on public assistance who complains about all the government permits she needs to get a job (apparently even McDonald's requires one). Still their stories are only blips in the midst of a near three-hour documentary. They are also watered down by success stories: a former cocktail waitress makes it big in Las Vegas' booming real estate market; a hotel cleaning woman who just bought a three-bedroom house; wait staff trainees who are assured "lucrative" salaries. Certainly, very few people who watch Las Vegas: An Unconventional History would be discouraged from visiting, or even moving, there. In fact, many people who watch the documentary will probably develop a hankering to go visit.
That might not be such a bad thing. Despite all the misfortune that festers below the glitz and glamour of the Strip, there is still something unique and alluring about the glimmering lights and exploding volcanoes and B-list celebrities that can not be denied. And Las Vegas producers Amanda Pollack and Steven Ives have done a great job intertwining an entertaining lineup of talking heads (including Nicholas Pileggi, co-author of the screenplay for Casino, and hotel owner Steve Wynn), and spectacular vintage footage through the ages (keep in mind, in Las Vegas an "age" is about 10 years). This includes clips of then-Senator John Kennedy being introduced to the crowd during a Rat Pack concert in 1959; the demolition of the historic Dunes Casino in 1993; and the construction of the world's largest birthday cake, a 130,000 pound behemoth created to celebrate Las Vegas's 100th birthday in 2005.
The documentary's breadth is impressive. Unlike 95 percent of Vegas tourists, Pollack and Ives do not confine themselves to the famous Strip. They even touch upon a variety of issues that are not gambling-related: Las Vegas' squalid West-Side shanty towns; its history of segregation; the city's fledgling public school system. Though nearly all cities have faced similar problems, Las Vegas' glamorous exterior often distracts us from the life that exists beyond the Strip. Learning about the city's struggles with poverty, civil rights and education helps us see Las Vegas as a real city the same way learning about a troubled home life helps us see our favorite celebrity as a real human being.
Ultimately, the documentary succeeds as a chronicle of the abnormal (and amoral) history of a booming, modern, metropolitan city. Sure, it occasionally soft soaps the human tragedy behind Las Vegas' construction, but to comprehensively document that would have probably resulted in a set that rivals Ric Burns' masterful, eight-part series New York (at least in length).
PBS' American Experience series has built up a well-deserved reputation for sturdy, authoritative, and entertaining documentaries. I watch its show regularly and have rarely been disappointed. While Las Vegas: An Unconventional History does not rate as high as some of their best work, like The Donner Party, Kinsey or The Massie Affair, it is still a worthy addition to their cannon. If you are interested in the mystique of Las Vegas, or the American West, this DVD would make a worthy addition to your collection.
If Bobby Kennedy couldn't take the city down, what chance do I have? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Making of Las Vegas: An Unconventional History
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