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Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (Blu-ray Review)

12 Oct, 2011 By: John Latchem

$39.99 three-DVD set, $44.99 three-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.
Narrated by Peter Coyote.

There are documentaries, and then there are Ken Burns documentaries, which always seem to offer just a little something extra. His latest, co-directed with longtime collaborator Lynn Novick, is this typically excellent three-part series about the build-up to and effects of the 18th Amendment, which banned the production and sale of alcohol in America in the 1920s.

However, the story begins in the mid-1800s, as prohibitionist movements began to pop up state-by-state to curb what was seen as a national epidemic of alcoholism (the average man drank three times as much as he does today). When it became clear that the majority of the citizenry was too weak-willed to turn away from its vices, the progressive movement made it more acceptable to legislate morality, making for some strange bedfellows.

The result is a textbook example of government overreach and a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of regulation and legislating morality.

Much of the prohibition movement was driven by the Anti-Saloon League, which proved activists can accomplish a lot when they devote themselves to a single issue without regard to how it might affect anything else. In this case, the biggest hurdle to national prohibition was the fact that the federal government was drunk with riches from the industry, drawing 70% of its revenue from taxing alcohol, which was the fifth largest industry in America at the time. So the Anti-Saloon League helped the progressives pass the 16th Amendment, which legalized a national income tax.

Even then, many states agreed to the 18th Amendment because they thought it would apply only to hard liquor, not wine or beer, which was often marketed as a health drink. Instead, the Volstead Act outlawed almost everything, with a few loopholes that were quickly exploited by the organized crime syndicates that took over the major cities to bring people their booze. This led to bloody gang wars in which local authorities were paid to look the other way, as corruption of government officials was widespread.

Burns spends a good amount of time on the best known of the gang bosses, Al Capone, but also introduces us to the lesser known king of the bootleggers, George Remus, a defense lawyer who realized there was more money in breaking the law than practicing it. He would buy distilleries that stored whiskey and other spirits made before the law took effect, and then sell them to his own drug stores for medicinal purposes, while sending criminals he employed to hijack the shipments so he could then sell it under the table and off the books. And when he and other criminals were caught and jailed, they could use their ill-gotten fortunes to buy a life of luxury on the inside.

In many cases, getting a drink became easier under prohibition. Those who weren’t frequenting one of the thousands of speakeasies that popped up could find ingredients at their local grocery store with easy-to-follow instructions to make their own booze.

When the Depression hit and America seemed to have more important things to worry about, the public began to realize the folly of a law that seemed to be hypocritical, and what had been labeled “A Noble Experiment” had to end. There are plenty of lessons here that can be applied to modern times, and partisans will no doubt pick and choose which aspects of the story are most relevant to them.

Prohibition is filled with the usual rich detail and trove of historic photos Burns documentaries are known for, backed by fresh interviews with historians and people who lived through the era. Also fun is identifying all the celebrity voices Burns brings in to read quotes from the past. Here he gives us Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, Patricia Clarkson, Josh Lucas, Oliver Platt and Sam Waterston, among others.

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