Viewers who stay for all five-plus hours of “Prohibition” will stagger away filled but not necessarily satisfied. The era is ripe with many historical-social corollaries and outcomes, and it could not be a more tailor-made subject for America’s Greatest Documentarian. Prohibition is inextricably linked to politics, the suffrage movement, religion, the South, civil rights, immigration, jazz — just a few of Burns’s favorite things. It is packed with bigger-than-life characters who left behind a lot of stirring words and a surplus of photographs and movies. If this documentary were made of alcohol, it could be chugged out of beer bongs at a Ken Burns frat-house blowout.
Some viewers will — and should — stop after a sip or two. Those of us who have watched Burns’s many masterly works over the years will recognize the trademark moves: the graceful pan-’n’-scan over archival photos and documents; the surprise treat of high-end celebrity voices reading bits of correspondence and arguments; the soundtrack choices resonating into redundance.
Burns’s fans will also await a magical moment that almost always occurs in his work: The epic scope of it eventually takes hold and you become far more absorbed in the subject than you ever thought possible; it’s a moment when you stop to realize that you are learning.
This has happened to me with his now-legendary takes on baseball and jazz — two subjects I’m not opposed to but also not naturally obsessed with. Once you’re in — once Burns has you hooked — you’re in for the long haul. I got to the end of 2007’s “The War” with something akin to the tingling high that marathon finishers must feel. I even stayed in for the whole of 2009’s “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” which was too long by half.
Burns has the similar gift of that rare history professor who can captivate even the most reluctant student by bringing the material to life. Thus, he is much beloved all across campus by everyone except other history profs. His tenure is unassailable.
Which makes me sad to note the long stretches of sober boredom in the middle of “Prohibition,” even though it is short (three nights, beginning Sunday) by Burns’s standards. At one point, I considered watching the documentary while drunk, to see if it improved. (It might help my writing, too.)
“Prohibition” draws on journalist Daniel Okrent’s comprehensive 2010 book, “Last Call.” Part 1 is called “A Nation of Drunkards,” and it is by far the best part of the project, exploring the nation’s colonial and pioneer dependency on booze, which was terrifying. When admiring our forebears’ survivalist resolve, we have to admit just how drunk they were on a daily basis. “Prohibition” eloquently grieves the toll this took on women and children, who lived in the fearful presence of abusive men who drank three times as much as today’s casual imbibers. The degree to which the United States drank in the 18th and 19th centuries is simply astonishing and goes a long way to explain the forces from which the temperance effort emerged, as well as the moral logic behind it.