Documentary Miniseries Review: ‘Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’

(C) 2011 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films

Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick (2011)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward, based in part on Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent

Produced by: Ken Burns, Sarah Botstein, and Lynn Novick

Directed by: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Narrated by: Peter Coyote

Featuring (as on-screen commentators or voice actors): Tom Hanks, Amy Madigan, John Lithgow, Patricia Clarkson, Pete Hamill, Daniel Okrent, John Paul Stevens, Samuel L. Jackson, Noah Feldman, Philip Bosco, Campbell Scott, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Kevin Conway

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

On October 2, 2011, over 300 member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired A Nation of Drunkards, the first of three parts of Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, a six-hour miniseries about how a coalition of women’s temperance movements, xenophobic anti-immigrant organizations, and well-meaning progressives tried to solve the social ills caused by alcohol abuse in the U.S. by getting the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution – Prohibition – ratified.  

Prohibition – also known as the Volstead Act, so-called because it was introduced by Representative Andrew Volstead (R-MN) as the National Prohibition Act of 1917 – was hailed by its ardent supporters as a “noble experiment” that, if it worked as advertised, would solve most of the nation’s domestic problems. Women – Prohibition’s principal backers, hoped that if the manufacture, distribution, and sale of intoxicating liquor were banned, chronic absenteeism from work, public intoxication, financial stresses, and spousal abuse would vanish.

Many teetotaling crusaders, mostly white Protestants who lived in the rural South and Midwest, also hoped that the 18th Amendment, the first and only alteration to the Constitution that restricted personal liberty – would serve as an incentive for immigrants – mostly beer-loving Germans and Austrians, Jews from Eastern Europe and Catholics from Ireland, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) and Italy – to stop following age-old traditions that included the consumption of wine and other spirits. To these adherents of the anti-saloon, anti-brewery movement, immigrants in the big (and corrupt) coastal cities were unraveling the fabric and traditions of what they thought was the ideal American civilization – Protestant, small town, and Anglo-Saxon America.

Indeed, 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 hatred for all things German, passage of the Volstead Act would have taken longer and it might have even died without ever becoming part of the Constitution.  (It was, in fact, vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, 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.)

Those of us who live in the 21st Century know that this is not what the Volstead Act accomplished. Sure, Prohibition had some positive results at the beginning; 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 after Prohibition became the law of the land.

However, the law had too 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. You couldn’t be arrested for drinking booze; just for making and selling it.  And ome states which had ratified the Volstead Act  – including Michigan –  did not enforce it and even repealed prohibition laws within their own constitutions.

At the national level, 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 made possible by America’s unquenchable thirst for forbidden beverages – beer, whiskey, gin and wine, for the most part.

My Take: In the tradition of other documentaries directed and produced by Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The Vietnam War), 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 – both Dry and Wet – 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.

The script by Geoffrey C. Ward, based mostly on author Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, probably isn’t flawless and might have factual errors sprinkled here and there (as history buffs and critical viewers of The War and The Civil War have previously noted) 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 of Prohibition.

I don’t know how subtitles are created and added to video images. It’s probably not an easy undertaking, and I suspect that it is a time-consuming and boring task that 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 – unless Prohibition was rushed to home video so it would be available shortly after its initial air dates on PBS in October of 2011 – 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.)

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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