Prohibition Review

Ken Burns returned to PBS this past week with his now famous style for documentaries.  His efforts, along with co-director (and frequent collaborator) Lynn Novick, resulted in the informative, but ultimately lackluster Prohibition.  A documentary that strives to live up to its predecessors, but has too much going against it to reach that level.

Prohibition follows the rise and fall of prohibition (taking a lot of time to note that Prohibition was always doomed to faiL) during the course of three nights (or episodes).  "A Nation of Drunkards", "A Nation of Scofflaws" and "A Nation of Hypocrites" rise and fall on how interesting the subjects they cover are.  For instance, the story of the rise of the beer company owners in "A Nation of Drunkards" is much more interesting than the well known exploits of Al Capone in "A Nation of Hypocrites".  The greatest strength of a Ken Burns is that it revels in exploring lesser known components of subject.  Instead Prohibition spends too much time on such common knowledge incidents such as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and the Fall of Al Capone.

Ultimately the thing that really kills this documentary is the major weakness of ever Ken Burns documentary: its runtime.  At around five and a half hours, Prohibition gets lost in itself and ultimately will lose many viewers by the last episode.  The first episode, as it explores the roots of the prohibition cause and the history of alcohol in America, seems completely necessary.  However, almost four hours dedicated to the Prohibition era (which only encompassed thirteen years) is too much.  The documentary ultimately becomes bogged down by the second and (especially) the third episode.  There is just too much repetitiveness.  I can only watch so many crackdowns (no matter how great they look when captured on film) and hear Al Capone's name so many times before it becomes too much.

Burns and Novick do deserve credit for making this documentary so stylish.  Burns' approach to documentary filmmaking is probably still the best approach to making a historical documentary.  The combination of music from the era, pictures and a wonderful voiceover by Peter Coyote always combine into something great.  It is also interesting to note that Burns and Novick use a lot of video in this documentary.  It is integrated into Burns' normal documentary style with great efficiency and results in some of the documentary's best moments (such as numerous federal crackdowns on speakeasies and a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt).  The directing duo is also once again able to get an all-star voice cast to accompany Peter Coyote.  Some of the voices involved include those of Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti (surprisingly the most noticeable of the voices), Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson and Patricia Clarkson.

Ultimately, Prohibition seems like one of Ken Burns' lesser projects and has too much in common with another Prohibition era television program, Boardwalk Empire.  Like the first season of that series, Prohibition is well made and has a great cast that performs the material well, but it can't bring everything together to make an engrossing program.

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