Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition novel and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition mini-series documentary were separate results from an initial team-up. Together, both provide an extremely-detailed account not only of Prohibition’s place in American history, but the events leading up to such a decision, the results of the repeal, and the long-lasting societal impact of the entire matter. Separate, both are still strong, informative, and entertaining, yet each tends to focus on different themes that do not intermingle and the result is noticeable.
Ken Burns, in his trademarked fashion, intermingles fantastically-original photos and video with colorful interviews from subject-matter experts and first-hand histories over-laced with celebrity voice-overs. He makes learning hip and brings about a passion for a dark, but necessary, time in American history. However, Burns’ documentary was too light in certain instances where a deeper look at American history would have highlighted the story. Okrent’s novel fills in such details that Burns either ignored or edited out, but was all-too heavy at times with whole sections reading as a historical text book rather than an entertaining albeit informative narrative.
Burns and Okrent enlighten 21st-century audiences to the fact that Prohibition, what can be now considered a politically silly arrangement, was not only responsible for the rise of Jazz, the introduction of mixed drinks, and the invention of speed boats, but also led to very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the outright success of Women’s Suffrage.
Burns brings hyped attention to the gangsters of the era, particularly Chicago’s Al Capone, providing enough details for a satisfactory display of information, yet failing to go deeper. Similar surface-level hype occurs when discussing the role of the Church with the Prohibition movement. Dry congressmen and senators knew how to convince their Baptist and Methodist ministers to use the pulpit to condemn the evils of alcohol, particularly in the Mid-West states.
Prohibition was an outcry not just against alcohol but also an excuse against the rise of poor immigrants filling America’s urban centers. The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, all known for enjoying wine and spirits, and of course all Catholics, became a scary threat for “decent, Protestant country folks,” as stated by Okrent. Cutting off immigrants from their alcohol was a way to ensure that these new Americans were productive members of society, not a burden of filthy drunkards. Unfortunately, Burns did not spend too much time on these ideals.
However, Burns attention to detail and crafting of a narrative tale is shown in his vision and with what is presented. He does keep entertainment at the forefront of his documentary, much like what he has done in the past, especially with his must-see Baseball series. Some indirect humor is presented with history playing the comedian to a more naïve time. Burns does get political with some of his views, but at no time are such views sobering enough to prevent the viewer from seeking out, say, the relief of a drink.