Top critical review
85 people found this helpful
Echoing the Conventional Wisdom
on October 5, 2011
Lavishly produced, including recreated period music and a treasure trove of photographs, the latest "documentary" from Ken Burns manages to narrowly miss the mark. In most American colleges and universities, Burns would receive an "A+" if he submitted an essay resembling his television documentary adaptation of Geoffrey Ward's script, but that would be due to carelessness or an inattention to detail on the part of his docile professor.
The production is marred by numerous historical errors and omissions, large and small, including some which were repeated in print on the companion PBS web site: Dean O'Banion did not live until 1926 as he was killed by rival gangsters in November of 1924; a montage of Chicago gangsters murdered during 1926 and 1927 gang war includes "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, who was actually killed a decade later; The political comeback election of Mayor William Hale Thompson, Jr., in 1927, was described as a "landslide," but, in truth, he was elected by a much smaller margin (about 83,000 votes) than he had obtained in his initial 1915 mayoral race; similarly, the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, Governor Al Smith of New York, was not defeated on account of the immense popularity of the Republican presidential incumbent since Herbert Hoover had not served as president prior to 1929; Hoover had served as a cabinet member (Secretary of Commerce), but he was elected to his first and only term in office after the incumbent president, Calvin Coolidge, chose not to run in 1928 (N. B. This inaccurate presidential information was posted on the companion PBS web site); the documentary praises Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union while politely ignoring her bizarre lifestyle (cross dressing in masculine attire and conducting numerous lesbian affairs with her intimates who affectionately called her "Frank") which marked her as something of a fanatical crackpot as well as a prohibitionist.
I could go on at further length, but what would be the point? One would think that Burns and Ward or their staffers would simply engage in some basic fact checking.
The series presents a composite history of prohibition which repeats many oft told yet widely accepted canards and embellished generalizations while occasionally creating brand new mistakes. The historical analysis provided is flavored with the leftist biases so common to historians and commentators who favored the New Deal Democratic Era to the Republican Twenties.
I so wanted to enjoy "Prohibition," as I had liked some of the previous historical documentaries that Burns had made, but this one did not quite measure up.