By Jeff Pfeiffer
There is a scene near the end o
That sentiment was likely shared by many citizens by the time Americaâ€™s 13-year â€śNoble Experimentâ€ť of the Volstead Act â€” a.k.a. the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but best known as Prohibition â€” that banned alcohol in most cases was repealed. And in fact, as Ken Burnsâ€™ new documentary film Prohibition shows, many never even stopped drinking, and the amendment ended up turning America into what one episode of the three-part film calls â€śa nation of scofflawsâ€ť â€” otherwise law-abiding citizens who rebelled against a vastly overreaching effort by the government to impose morality upon its populace. Of course, it also led to more serious lawbreaking â€” the explosion of the types of Capones and mini-Capones onto the scene who trafficked in illegal booze, and whom the government then had to expend resources upon fighting with the likes of Ness and his men.
The gangster shootouts are likely the part of the Prohibition story that most of us are familiar with, and Burns does spend time on that, but his film (not as epically long as his others; this one clocks in at around five and a half hours) goes back further to explore Americaâ€™s love/hate relationship with alcohol. This starts particularly in the mid 1800s when the â€śhard stuffâ€ť beyond just beer and ale became more readily available and began tearing apart some individuals and fam
But what is perhaps more compelling is how, whether intentionally or not, commentary from historians and quotes from the period itself bring to light just how things have stayed the same in our country in terms of national arguments. As we have recently seen in the epic debt-ceiling battle between Congress and the president, and as Prohibition also shows, there have always been all sorts of sides â€” some willing to compromise, others not. During Prohibition, the so-called â€śDrysâ€ť stood firm on their desire to abolish all forms of alcohol and ended up ultimately losing their argument when Prohibition was repealed. But viewers of the film and students of history and current events can pick up on the fact that the type of personality that adopted a â€śDryâ€ť mentality may have moved on to other arguments in later decades. Whether Burns was trying to make commentary on that or not can be seen in the film.
As with most of Burnsâ€™ works, the most interesting elements come from quotes and readings from people of the time. In a technical sense, the film feels familiar to his other films, especially with the panning over and zooming in on photos, and the use of the reliable Peter Coyote as narrator. But that style definitely works, and combined with a fascinating story that adds to a further understanding of our countryâ€™s history, along with a great score by Wynton Marsalis that recalls the music that came to prominence during the Prohibition era (it isnâ€™t called the Jazz Age for nothing), it makes for intoxicating viewing.
Prohibition premieres Sunday, Oct. 2, and continues Oct. 3 and 4 at 8pm ET each night on PBS (check local listings).
Top photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Bottom photo: John Binder Collection