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Featured TV on DVD Review: Ken Burns: Prohibition

October 3rd, 2011

Ken Burns: Prohibition - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

This is not the first Ken Burns documentary series I've reviewed and his record so far has set up really high expectations. Will Prohibition live up to those expectations? The prohibition era certainly has a lot of interesting stories to tell, but will we hear them in this three-part series?

The Show

The program is divided up into three parts, each running about two hours long.

  1. Episode 1: A Nation of Drunkards
    Starting with a quote from Mark Twain, we learn the very early beginning, starting way back in 1826. Alcohol had always been part of the American culture, and every culture for that matter, but when the predominant form of alcohol switched from 2% beer to 40% whiskey, it became a real problem. There were many attempts to ban alcohol that failed in the past and we see some of the methods employed by the anti-alcohol forces. (Many of these are still used today by many groups who support wedge issues.)
  2. Episode 2: A Nation of Scofflaws
    Hopefully this episode begins with a definition of, "scofflaw". (It takes seven minutes, but we get there.) By banning alcohol, the anti-alcohol forces thought they would get rid of Alcohol. The thought was that people didn't want to drink and were being conned into by brewers. But they were wrong and instead they just created a nation of criminals. The second episode talks about the new laws, how they were enforced, and the many loopholes. It wasn't long before the bootleggers became organized. And it was an even shorter time before politicians and police were either bribed, or so overwhelmed by cases, they couldn't do anything. We learn a lot about the individuals on both sides of the law. By the time we hear about people dying from drinking paint thinner sold as alcohol, it's clear Prohibition was a failure. And that's before we get to gang wars over alcohol selling territory.
  3. Episode 3: A Nation of Hypocrites
    Prohibition was a failure, but there was still a fight to be had to get rid of it. In the meantime, more and more people were flaunting the laws. Some were socialites just looking for a good time. Others were mafia who were looking to make a lot of money, and didn't care how many people died as a result. This part also talks about the some of the good things that came from Prohibition, like getting women more involved in other walks of life.
It's amazing how much of this documentary applies to what happening to day. I wonder if in twenty years we will watch another documentary like this about the war on drugs.

The Extras

Extras are all found on the first disc, starting with a 7-minute featurettes on the voice acting for the documentary. A lot of letters and other written material from real life people are read by a number of actors. There is also close to 30 minutes of deleted scenes and nearly an hour of additional interviews. The Blu-ray looks good, but not great. However, given the type of release this is, it would be unfair to expect greatness. While the newly shot interview footage does look great, even if it does have quite a bit of grain, a lot of the film is archival photos and newsreel footage. There's no way to make that look good on Blu-ray. The audio is clear, but for the most part uncomplicated. Your surround sound speakers will be very underutilized. Finally, looking at the price we find the list price for the Blu-ray is only $5 more, while it actually costs $1 less on Amazon.com. You can't beat that price.

The Verdict

Ken Burns: Prohibition is just what you expect from a Ken Burns documentary, which is a high compliment. If you didn't get a chance to watch the first episode on Sunday, but are a fan of his work, then the DVD and the Blu-ray are worth a blind buy, with the latter being the better deal.


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