Latest Ken Burns documentary explores the Prohibition era

By Jeff Pfeiffer

There is a scene near the end of the 1987 film The Untouchables when Kevin Costner’s T-man character Eliot Ness — whom we have just seen, along with his team of agents, help bring gangster Al Capone to justice — is asked by a reporter what he would do if the talks of ending Prohibition become reality. Thinking for a moment, Ness then says with a hint of a smile and a bit of relief, “I think I’ll have a drink.”

That sentiment was likely shared by many citizens by the time America’s 13-year “Noble Experiment” of the Volstead Act — a.k.a. the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but best known as Prohibition — that banned alcohol in most cases was repealed. And in fact, as Ken Burns’ 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 “a nation of scofflaws” — 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 — 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 America’s love/hate relationship with alcohol. This starts particularly in the mid 1800s when the “hard stuff” beyond just beer and ale became more readily available and began tearing apart some individuals and families. From that time our national conversation turned to arguments for and against prohibition of alcohol, and it’s the early attempts, both by states and nationally, that are often of most interest in this film. Once the film reaches Prohibition itself, we see and hear what we might expect — the bootleggers, flappers, Capone and other gangsters, etc. — and some things we may not have known as much about, such as the expanding freedom of women, especially sexually, and how some beer and wine was still allowed to be made in the home in certain circumstances.

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 — some willing to compromise, others not. During Prohibition, the so-called “Drys” 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 “Dry” 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 Burns’ 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 country’s history, along with a great score by Wynton Marsalis that recalls the music that came to prominence during the Prohibition era (it isn’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).

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.


Top photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Bottom photo: John Binder Collection