Prohibition (Blu-ray Review)

Given that the HBO series Boardwalk Empire is currently one of the most popular shows on television at the moment, it seemed like good timing to have a new and very thorough, multipart documentary series covering Prohibition.  The PBS documentary, Prohibition, is indeed very thorough, but it is also true to form for director/producer Ken Burns, who manages to pile on the information, while also keeping things very entertaining.  Over the span of 6 hours, on 3 separate Blu-ray discs, an assortment of topics, all relating to the 18th amendment and its eventual repeal is covered.  The “Noble Experiment”, the ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, lead to a lot of debate during the 1920s and into the 1930s and this Blu-ray set is a great way to learn so much more about it.


As described, the series has been divided into three parts, billed as episodes.

Episode one, “A Nation of Drunkards”, describes how immigration, alcoholism, women’s suffrage and the temperance movements led up to the passing of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition.  Much like the rest of the episodes, expansive is a key word to describe the information given.  It is quite entertaining to basically learn about how everyone was drinking throughout the years, in the build up to Prohibition and this first episode lays out all of the groundwork that resulted in this amendment’s passing with a number of great segments that recall not just the relative period before, but even further back in some instances.

Episode two, “A Nation of Scofflaws”, addresses how the enforcement of Prohibition was inconsistent and caused unintended consequences, including making criminals of a large portion of the population.  This enjoyable segment covers territory that is always the most popular when seeing various films and TV series that focus on Prohibition.  The lengths that people went to and how Prohibition affected the nation at the time was a fascinating way to learn about so many different types of mindsets in regards to politics and the nation, along with how the criminal atmosphere was very much public knowledge and how it played into making celebrities out of certain criminals and brought the nation into an interesting moral territory in regards to its own constitution.

Episode three, “A Nation of Hypocrites”, follows the gradual swing towards repeal of Prohibition as the Great Depression focuses attention on other priorities.  This is of course the ending of that era, which had so many flaws and lead to various and interesting types of disasters for the nation.  As organized crime emerged, FDR’s era took hold, and the nation’s struggle with the Great Depression became a greater focus, the failure that was Prohibition needed to be resolved.  The controversial beginnings of this widely debated movement lead to an inevitable ending.

Prohibition uses photographs, archival film footage, the input of historians, and actors like Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, Patricia Clarkson, and John Lithgow who provide voiceover throughout, in an effort to properly distribute so much information over the duration of this documentary.  Peter Coyote also serves as the narrator.  There are also a number of interviews and moments of input from various notable people old enough to remember and recall those times.

I tend to find it somewhat difficult to really analyze this type of media further.  I have established what it is about and found the majority of it fascinating.  As I have stated, the material covered is expansive.  So many different facets in regards to Prohibition are covered; it makes perfect sense that 6 hours of time spent watching and listening to what is being presented is needed in order to have a fulfilling sense that a lot has been learned, while staying fairly entertaining throughout.  I can say personally, as a history major and someone that really finds this time period quite interesting, that the material presented was handled wonderfully and rarely let up.  Anyone who has seen plenty of forms of media depicting a dramatized version of the subject matter seen here should really given this fantastic documentary series a look.


For a documentary series originally broadcasted on PBS and filled with interviews and archive footage, I found the video presentation to be fairly well handled.  Prohibition arrives on the disc with a 1080i HD 16×9 1.85:1 encode transfer, but makes the most with what it has to work with.  All of the archival footage is of varying quality, as one would expect, but I was surprised at how non-affected I was while watching it.  This may be due to the quality of the documentary, but while the archival footage is not necessarily worth noting, the vintage photographs all look pretty great.  Interviews are shot a certain way, with the colors coming through well enough, especially as the dark backgrounds tend to highlight certain aspects of the transfer.  Given the nature of this documentary and its original TV broadcast, I was pleased enough with how the video came out on this Blu-ray disc.


The audio quality doesn’t work quite as well as the video.  The disc does not arrive with a lossless presentation, although things do sound clear enough with the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track.  Once again, you can only get so much out of archival footage, but getting to listen to the music provided in the background of various segments or listening to the various interviews all made for a solid enough audio experience.  As a documentary very focused on presenting facts and information explained to the viewer, it is not an audio track that really needs to deliver and feels like it is delivered as such on this disc.

Special Features: 

At first glance, there is not much going on in the way of extra material for Prohibition; however, upon looking into them, there is a decent amount of material here, although only one feature is presented in HD.

Features include:

In The Studio – A very short behind the scenes look at putting together this series.

Bonus Scenes – Just as described, a number of sequences cut out of the final series.  Clocks in around 30 minutes.

Interview Outtakes – Nearly an hour worth of material, with additional information from the interviewees, regarding material covered in the series.

Final Thoughts: 

The best thing that I can say about this documentary series is that you get a lot of information in a very entertaining and enlightening manner.  Those who think they have a handle on some of what occurred when Prohibition was in force will learn so much more from this fascinating series.  Given the talent of Ken Burns as a documentarian, getting an all-encompassing look at this time period through the use of so many different forms of media, the interviews, archive footage, photos, use of voiceovers, it is very much a great way to find out so much more about this part of American history.  The Blu-ray does enough justice to all of this as well, with decent technical standards holding up, more so in the video department, and just enough extras to make it worthwhile for checking out.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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