Review by Ryan Wilson

Although it feels slightly hyperbolic to say, watching each new Ken Burns film is essentially watching America reacquaint with itself. Or to use an analogy, watching Burns’ treatment of America and its history is like walking through a massive antique mall; along the way we might recognize a piece of our past, we might pick it up, play with it in our hands, think hard about what it once meant to us, then place it back and move on with our day feeling as if we’re missing something living in the current age.

By now Burns’ documentary style is as recognizable as it is notoriously nostalgic: the tender music, the warm voices, and erudite talking heads, the way we linger on the old photographs and found filmstrips. Burns makes it all so poetic, so evocative. To dislike Ken Burns feels tantamount to disliking Walt Whitman, a rather impossible or at least unpopular undertaking for anyone curious about American themes. That’s a testament to Ken Burns’ influence these last thirty years.

And yet Burns has changed so little in his style since Brooklyn Bridge premiered in 1981. He even uses the same font throughout his films, along with the same transitioning chapters. In many ways he’s the film equivalent of Studs Terkel producing his oral histories. If the template isn’t broken, why change it? Taken together, Burns’ work is really one giant film on those subjects he finds unique to America: warfare, jazz, Mark Twain, the national parks, baseball.

The latest chapter is Prohibition, arguably the densest subject Burns has undertaken. Scratch the surface of the bottle and suddenly we’re deep into issues of other large social matters, such as women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, ethnic immigration, organized crime, and the role, as well as the size, of government. Yet the film turns out to be one of the shortest in the Burns’ opus, clocking in at under six hours.

In typical Burns fashion the expert writers, historians, and biographers frame the larger discussion for us at the beginning and end of each new chapter. Their job is always to guide us through the larger social context of the happenings, to tell us what it all means. In his recent films, Burns seems to stress these moments all the more, as he did in 2009’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. As with that film, Burns’ central premise concerns government in our lives, those things it can enhance, as well as those freedoms it can limit. If the national parks film showed government at its finest, then Prohibition arguably is the other side of that coin. And it’s impossible not to watch the film and find parallels to current political debates about illegal immigration, drug legalization, as well as any number of other wedge issues.

Also, more than in any of his other work, Burns is interested in the irony. We’re repeatedly reminded throughout the film of how prohibition sought to legislate morality yet resulted in more immorality in the form of more corruption, more violence, and frankly more drinking. In fact the whole affair of Prohibition opens a Pandora’s box of problems concerning civil liberties. Yet Burns is also careful to blame everyone from the women’s groups who supported it to the progressive unions to religious groups to the Ku Klux Klan. Never before, it seems, had so many diverse organizations supported the same mistake.

As always, the strength of Burns is not really in the analysis of it all, smart though that is, but with the storytelling. Nothing reminds us of our individual potential or limitations like a good Burns profile. As we would expect, we get a vigorous treatment of Al Capone. But the real treats are those more forgotten historical figures like suffragist Frances Willard, federal prosecutor Mabel Willebrandt, and famous bootleggers Roy Olmstead and George Remus. The strange legal odyssey of George Remus alone makes the film worth watching.

Smart comedians remark how each new Burns’ film is a week off for your local history teacher. And in truth it probably should be. For better or worse, Burns has turned into our national history teacher, and your local one would be more than a little remiss if he or she didn’t use at least portions of Burns’ films in the classroom. His work is important, not to mention just as, if not more, effective than readings textbooks or attending lectures, a reminder of the power of film, as well as the power of the past.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011