October 4, 2011
Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
With the popularity of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and recurring debates about the legalization of marijuana, abortion and gay marriage, now is the perfect time to revisit Prohibition—the movie, not the banning of alcohol. This fascinating three-part PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick with narration by Peter Coyote reminds us all of what happens when one group tries to impose its moral code of conduct on everyone else. One word: disaster.
In 1920, under pressure from Christian women's groups who wanted to keep their men at home providing for the family and out of the saloons, the U.S. government banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. Over the next 13 years, this misguided 18th Amendment to the Constitution had some unforeseen consequences that this documentary covers in loving detail. For every saloon that closed down a few speakeasies sprung up that catered to both men and newly liberated women—the flappers—of the Roaring Twenties. Bootleggers popped up like mushrooms across the country and many criminals—from Al Capone to small-time whiskey-jobbers—saw an opportunity to circumvent the law and give thirsty citizens the liquor they craved. Before long, otherwise law-abiding citizens became lawbreakers overnight and we became a nation of "Wets" vs. "Drys."
When the nation slid into the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt rose to the presidency, few could deny that Prohibition was a disaster and Americans suddenly came to their senses and repealed the 18th Amendment. The next time you are in a bar, tip your glass to these illuminated Americans who fought to end the lunacy.
Prohibition stretches out almost six hours and is divided into three parts: A Nation of Drunkards, A Nation of Scofflaws and A Nation of Hypocrites. The film intertwines a treasure of vintage video footage and extraordinary photographs with commentary from various historians as well as a few seniors who share their memories of the failed "Noble Experiment." In addition to showcasing the culture revolution that Prohibition unintentionally sparked in the speakeasies, the documentary sheds light on the discrimination of immigrants that Prohibition intensified by persecuting their customs. It's a remarkable dark tale of fear-mongering, intolerance and smear campaigns that will hopefully make you question the role of government with regard to our individual rights and personal freedoms the next time you are in a voting booth.
Best extras: Both the DVD and Blu-ray contain the "In the Studio" featurette, several bonus scenes and interview outtakes.