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Ken Burns' "Prohibition" review: How the "noble experiment" went so badly wrong

Prohibition

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Prohibition” (2011)

"Prohibition" is another of Ken Burns' revealing looks at American history and culture.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Written by Geoffrey C. Ward

Featuring: Tom Hanks, Peter Coyote, Campbell Scott, Daniel Okrent, John Lithgow

It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. – Section One, Amendment 18 to the Constitution of the United States

The Eighteenth Amendment – also known as the Volstead Act, named after Rep. Andrew Volstead (R-Minn), – is a shining example of how legislation crafted with the best of intentions can have unintended consequences and create more problems than it solves.

Its staunchest supporters – the “drys” – hailed it as the Noble Experiment and an outstanding achievement for progressive forces. If it worked as intended, Prohibition would solve all the social ills caused by the consumption of alcohol. Ban booze from America, the drys proclaimed, and such problems as domestic violence, spousal abuse, absenteeism from work, poverty and petty crime would be eradicated, leaving a "more perfect union."

From the mid-19th Century to the entry of the United States into the First World War, the temperance movement - an alliance of religious leaders, women and citizens of rural communities pitted itself against big city dwellers, immigrants and the alcoholic beverage industry. Breweries and distilleries comprised the nation’s fifth largest enterprise and the biggest source of revenue for the Federal government, but the temperance movement was determined to eradicate alcohol from American society.

The 80-year-long War on Booze was, as filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick point out in their three-part documentary “Prohibition,” a protracted and ultimately futile attempt by a mostly white and Protestant coalition of preachers, women activists, lawyers and anti-immigrant groups to legislate morality in the name of a more pure America.

Its crowning achievement was the Volstead Act of 1917, which was introduced in Congress by a conservative congressman from Minnesota at a time when anti-German sentiment was at a fever pitch. During World War I, public opinion favored quick passage of a bill intended to punish supposedly untrustworthy German-American owners of such breweries as Anheuser-Busch, Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company and other such companies based in the Midwest.

A Nation of Drunkards, the first of “Prohibition’s” three parts, points out that had it not been for the clever manipulation by the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler of wartime anti-German sentiment, passage of the Volstead Act would have taken longer. It might have even died without ever becoming part of the Constitution once the anti-German sentiment died down. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the amendment, but it had enough supporters in the House of Representatives and the veto was overturned. The 18th Amendment became the law of the land after it was ratified in 1919 when Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify it.

How did a nation founded on rights ever go so wrong? – tagline for “Prohibition”

However, as the episodes A Nation of Scofflaws and A Nation of Hypocrites remind us, the only amendment to the Constitution designed to restrict personal freedoms and impose morality on an entire nation failed miserably. (It's also, incidentally, the only amendment to have been repealed.)

21st Century audiences know, of course, how miserably things worked out for the "drys" and the nation. Prohibition initially had a few positive results because most Americans knew that alcohol abuse was a social problem that needed to be addressed. Many individuals, even those who were drinkers, tried to obey the law as a matter of good citizenship. As a result, alcohol-related car accidents were reduced and public drunkenness arrests went down sharply within the first 12 months of the Prohibition era.

However, the law had many loopholes and was not enforced seriously or even fairly. The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was forbidden, yet the consumption of it was not even mentioned in the Volstead Act.

Some states which had ratified it did nothing to enforce it and even repealed prohibition laws within their own constitutions. In addition, the Federal government only fielded a handful of Prohibition agents to shut down illegal distilleries and speakeasies, arrest bootleggers and prosecute gangsters who built huge criminal empires.

My Take: In the tradition of other documentaries directed and produced by Ken Burns, “Prohibition” gives viewers both a Big Picture look at a period of American history and a more intimate and personal view at some of the individuals who were involved with (or affected by) the temperance movement and its ill-fated campaign to ban booze from America forever.

For A Nation of Drunkards, which covers the period between 1826 and 1919, and the other two parts, Burns and his collaborator Lynn Novick rely on the by-now familiar techniques of mixing dramatic use of cinematographer Buddy Squires’ lenswork on still pictures, archival documentary footage and “talking head” interviews with writers, historians and ordinary people who were young when Prohibition was part of the American scene.

In addition, “Prohibition” makes use of excellent voice acting by a cast of well-known actors, including Peter Coyote (the series’ narrator), Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Bosco, Kevin Conway, Blythe Danner, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons. Some, like Giamatti, portray one of the series’ featured historical figures, while others lend their vocal talent to multiple parts.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. – from the “Prohibition” website at www.pbs.org

The script by Geoffrey C. Ward, based mostly on author David Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, probably isn’t flawless and might have factual errors sprinkled here and there, but overall “Prohibition” is a fascinating look at a pivotal period of American history.

It shows, in an entertaining and non-didactic style, how the Prohibition laws not only failed to eradicate alcohol from its long-established presence in America, but also instilled in many otherwise law-abiding citizens a sense of disdain for legal authority and – worse – helped the growth of organized crime and the incidental rise in crime, corruption and moral hypocrisy.

Although the digitally-mastered video and sound – especially on Blu-ray - are top-notch and the musical selections by Florentine Films’ music editors are lively and evocative of the period, Paramount Home Entertainment and PBS Distribution should have taken some time to quality check the subtitles on the Blu-ray and DVD editions.

I am not familiar with the process of adding subtitles – in any language – to video images, but I suspect that it is a time-consuming and boring task that, if not carefully carried out, can allow all kinds of mistakes to creep in and show up on people’s TVs.

Sometimes – and this is understandable – subtitles have to condense what a speaker is saying in the audio track in order to keep up with the film’s pacing. Thus, truncating a line of overlong dialogue so that the subtitle doesn’t lag too much is okay. It happens in lots of films and most people – especially the deaf and hard of hearing – won’t notice.

What is not understandable is the sloppiness of some of the subtitles present in the Blu-ray, especially those that appear when street addresses are mentioned in the narrative. (At least on three occasions while watching A Nation of Hypocrites, I noticed glaring errors in capitalization when specific locations are named.)

All in all, however, “Prohibition” is still a remarkable example of documentary filmmaking at its best. It presents a complex topic rife with legal, moral and social conflict with wit, style, a fast pace, a fine eye for detail and a keen understanding of the extremes of human emotion on both sides of the issue. Ken Burns and his Florentine Films crew infuse the series’ three episodes with a plethora of historical anecdotes and a cavalcade of characters –including the hatchet-wielding anti-saloon crusader Carrie Nation, lawyer-turned-bootlegger George Remus, satirist-writer H.L. Mencken and gangster-chief Al Capone – who personify the various factions in the struggle between “Wet” and “Dry”America.

Blu-ray Specs

Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Color, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English, Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Region: Region A/1
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Number of discs: 3
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: PBS (DIRECT)
Blu-ray & DVD Release Date: October 4, 2011
Run Time: 360 minutes