Prohibition was a stupid idea. That much is clear with our historical hindsight. It caused many more problems than it solved, and created a country full of outlaws and hypocrites. Ken Burns' new PBS-funded documentary is quite possibly the most in-depth film ever created on the subject that divided a nation for 13 long years before the Amendment was eventually repealed.
Burns' matter-of-fact way of piecing together an interesting story using historical events works perfectly here. Peter Coyote narrates, as we navigate the morally stringent beginnings of Prohibition following it all the way through to its utter demise. Across this three-part documentary – "A Nation of Drunkards," "A Nation of Scofflaws," and "A Nation of Hypocrites" – we learn all the ins and outs of the law. Why it was a bad idea, and what unintended consequences came along with the new law.
For myself I didn't really understand how prohibition became such a big deal in the first place. Burns does a great job here, recapping the moral upheaval in the U.S. that started the road to alcohol becoming outlawed. Groups of women, who eventually formed a national group that fought alcohol tooth and nail, thought that drinking was the source of all their problems. Their husbands would beat them and treat them awfully. Obviously, this was the fault of alcohol, and not the fault of the men they married. Soon a sentiment arose where large groups of women believed that if alcohol was outlawed their problems would magically be fixed. Strikes, protests, and even wanton vandalism by women spurred the country to create an amendment to the Constitution outlawing alcohol all together.
We learn how the birth of organized crime came directly out of prohibition. Al Capone became a worldwide celebrity during this time. The mafia refined the way they worked, and with alcohol being illegal they were able to cash in on the higher prices because demand greatly outweighed supply.
If you're into American history, this is the documentary for you. Burns lays the information out so anyone can understand it, but he's careful to include even more interesting information that was previously unknown, at least to me. Did you know that the "Insanity Defense" used in courtrooms came directly from the prohibition era, when a famous bootlegger who was also a lawyer, used the defense after he had murdered his own wife. And he got off! It also covers the emergence of jazz music which was directly influenced by the illegal speakeasies that began popping up all over the place. Women's liberation and right to vote sprouted from here too. As women showed that they had power to influence American politics, their liberation became imminent. As illegal alcohol flowed easily all over the nation, people drank even more, leading to a sexual revolution where people were much more open about their sexual exploits than ever before.
Many famous voices lend their talents to this documentary. You'll recognize the voices of Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, John Lighgow, Oliver Platt, Blythe Danner, and Patricia Clarkson.
There's close to six hours of documentary here, and I burned through it all in one day. Many docs about historical subjects can end up being boring and tedious, covering the same information over and over. Not this one though. 'Prohibition' covers one of the worst political decisions the U.S. has ever made and lays out the reasons why it was such a bad idea. Check this out if you want a really in-depth, well-researched, well-constructed historical documentary. It's well worth your time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The documentary, from PBS, is housed on three 25GB Blu-ray discs. They're housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a single swinging arm in the middle that holds the first two discs in back-to-back hubs. The packaging indicates a Region A coding.
As you may have guessed, the video quality varies substantially throughout the documentary because of the source material. Sometimes we're looking at old political speeches full of noise, old movie reels that feel like they've been damaged beyond repair, ancient photographs, ect. The source doesn't offer much in the way of crystalline visuals.
'Prohibition' is presented in 1080i. With the quality of the stock footage and photographs varying greatly, much of the video's presentation and score really should come from how good the interviews of historians look. Many of the interviews are soft in nature. Not a lot of fine facial detail to be had. It's not like we need a whole lot of detail for a documentary. There are a few older black and white photographs that seem like they get a real boost in clarity due to the high definition. Frankly, 'Prohibition' looks as good as it's going to look, but even then it's a pretty average presentation.
Along the same lines is the lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that has been included. Granted not much is needed in the way of sonic wares, but a lossless mix would have been nice. Narration is always clear, which is nice. Sound effects like roaring crowds and gunshots are given are represented nicely. Music bleeds into the rears a little, but for the most part they stay understandably silent.
Going into a documentary you aren't going to be expecting a big-time audio mix, and that's perfectly fine. Even though it is a lossy track it kept me engaged the entire time.
'Prohibition' is a great, thorough documentary about one of America's worst decisions, how it came about, what happened when it was instituted, and what led to its repeal. It's an interesting time in American history though. So many unintended cultural consequences branched out from prohibition. The video and audio are average, but being a documentary you probably weren't expecting demo material. 'Prohibition' is recommended.