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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Prohibition debuts tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Documentarian Ken Burns’ stylistic trademarks have become worn through overuse: the murmuring talking heads, the archival quotes read by famous voices, the plaintive piano music, the still photographs, whatnot. Nevertheless, I started looking forward to Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest documentary mini-series Prohibition from the moment the project was announced. Neither as too-big-to-chew a subject as World War II or as too-trifling-for-twelve-hours as national parks, the story of prohibition fits perfectly with Burns’ and Novick’s mission of exploring the American character through our pastimes and preoccupations. And I have to say: Prohibition is about as entertaining and enlightening as I’d hoped it would be. It’s relatively taut—under six hours, divided into three well-structured parts—and full of fascinating stories, covering the reasons why the United States amended the Constitution to outlaw the production, sale, and transport of intoxicating liquors, and how that well-meaning movement went horribly awry.


Part one is called “A Nation Of Drunkards” and traces the understandable national anxiety over alcohol abuse that developed in the latter half of the 19th century, as booze became more potent, and drunken men ruined their careers and their home-lives. “A Nation Of Drunkards” gets into the various temperance movements that arose (The Washingtonians! The Women’s Christian Temperance Union!), and discusses the saloon culture that was just as prevalent and vibrant. Gradually, the former began to shape the public perception of the latter, selling the idea that poverty, prostitution, and violence would all but vanish if alcohol were banned, and that the great American experiment could at last be a success.

In part two, “A Nation Of Scofflaws,” Prohibition describes the immediate after-effects of the passage of the 19th amendment. Drinking declined early on, as did incidents of domestic violence. Coca-Cola stock went up, while America’s brewers busied themselves making ice cream and near-beer. But the politicians who were swept into power by the drys also opposed government spending, which meant there wasn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the Volstead Act properly either on the local or national level. Once people realized they could bend or break the law fairly openly, a shadow-economy sprung up, and thrived.


The series wraps with “A Nation Of Hypocrites,” which goes deeper into both the criminal underground ruled over by the likes of Al Capone, and the more benign subculture of the speakeasies as championed by sophisticated writers like The New Yorker’s Lois Long. It also explained how prohibition met its death in much the same way it was conjured into life: when a group of concerned, politically connected women took to the streets to make the case that the only way to safeguard the American family was to repeal this failure of an amendment and all its attendant laws.

Prohibition is still very much a rigidly Burns/Novick-y production, right down to the celebrity voices (Campbell Scott as F. Scott Fitzgerald! Paul Giamatti as Cincinnati super-bootlegger George Remus!) and to the inevitable interviews with Daniel Okrent and Studs Terkel. But the documentary is a lot more focused than some of Burns’ bigger projects. It’s not just about the colorful tapestry that is American history, but specifically about how we fight like hell sometimes to secure what we imagine will be permanent and positive changes, only to see them fail because of our own short-sightedness and stubbornness. Any resonances with contemporary politics—especially with movements that promote the legislation of morality—are entirely intended, if rarely directly stated.

As with any Burns/Novick film, Prohibition is largely constructed out of subplots and detours. The film threads together the temperance movement and the suffrage movement, showing that the moralists actually did accomplish something worthwhile. It also shows how the speakeasy era brought white America into closer contact with the after-hours entertainment of black America, leading us towards fuller integration. Prohibition touches on the origin of the Kennedy dynasty in the saloons of Boston, and throws out some stats about pre-prohibition “vice districts,” where men could get a drink, get laid, see a peepshow, and snort cocaine. (When it comes to sin, we ain’t got nothing on our forefathers.)

Mostly though, what makes Prohibition so sharp is how it explicates the cynicism and hypocrisy that fueled this whole era. The “dry” Americans often voted for “dry” politicians because they wanted to promote good values in others, not because they had any intention of sealing off their own wine cellars. And the politicians exploited the movement for votes, and protected the Volstead Act long after the majority of Americans had turned against it, not because they were committed to abstinence but because their core constituents insisted. Meanwhile, those same politicians also resisted reapportionment, because they wanted to preserve the power of the rural voters even as the population of the cities swelled. The stock market crash would exacerbate change in the opposite direction, causing the temperance movement to lose everything it had won. They might’ve been able to secure those victories had they not been so insistent on absolutism, but because they painted their cause as a righteous rather than a practical one, they refused to compromise. “All or nothing” inevitably ends with nothing.


Stray observations

  • Some may be disappointed that Prohibition doesn’t connect the dots to our current anti-drug laws. That’s because Burns and Novick are more interested in the broader notion of political will than its particular applications. (Which means that the critique of modern forms of prohibition is in there, just not overtly.)
  • Fans of Boardwalk Empire will be disappointed to know the major characters from that show don’t appear much in Prohibition, outside of Capone and some passing mentions of Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano. But I was pleased to see so much about George Remus (who was featured in the Boardwalk Empire season two premiere), and to learn that he did in fact have the habit of referring to himself in the third person.
  • I’m related on my mother’s side to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneering feminist who also joined Susan B. Anthony as a temperance fighter. My daughter is named “Cady,” after Stanton.
  • I wish this docu-series had delved a little more into the “strange bedfellows” aspect of social movements. Just as the anti-pornography movement has created alliances between feminists and fundamentalists, so temperance had suffragettes forging paths that would soon be traveled by the Ku Klux Klan, who took the “moral purity” aspect of temperance to a terrifying extreme.
  • As overfamiliar as the Ken Burns style can be, there are elements of it that work reliably, like the little “here’s some of what you’re about to see” overture that begins every episode, and the mini-cliffhangers that end them. I’m a huge Baseball fan, so whenever I see those little tricks, I’m reminded of why I loved that series so much.
  • Also, I mocked the use of Daniel Okrent, but he’s a terrific writer (who recently wrote a book on prohibition), so I’m not really annoyed that he’s featured here. Besides, he gets in one of the best points in the series in the final episode, when he says that in the prohibition era, when booze was illegal but plentiful, just about anyone could get a strong drink any time of day, regardless of their age or social status. Once liquor became legal again, we saw closing times, age limits, and restrictions on alcohol content.
  • Prohibition hits home for me in part because I actually live in a dry county. When we moved here in 1999, it was completely dry outside of a couple of members-only clubs. And even now, we have to drive about 30 miles to the county line to buy bottles of wine and beer from a package store. But a few years back, the locals did fight to get alcohol into restaurants. Initially, there were a lot of restrictions, though now it seems just about any new eatery can qualify for a club license, and we can get a drink without filling out any paperwork or paying any bogus “membership fee.” Still, I remember the first time my wife and I went to a restaurant in town that served alcohol, and how we raised our glasses in a dining room full of locals who’d been waiting for this for years (or even decades). It felt liberating, and even a little illicit. But that cheap thrill wasn’t worth the hassle.

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