Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries are always stately, informative and classy, but the degree of resonance often stems from the extent to which they reflect on, and connect to, current trends and mores. “Prohibition” — a five-hour, three-part collaboration with Lynn Novick, which PBS will air over successive nights — succeeds on both counts, managing to be extremely entertaining, packed with amusing details and highly relevant to today’s politics. If nothing else, “Boardwalk Empire” fans ought to view it as a study guide, but the larger question of attempting to legislate others’ behavior seems as minty fresh as a Mojito.
“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits” is the Mark Twain quote that opens part one, appropriately subtitled “A Nation of Drunkards.” The filmmakers proceed to recount how imbibing tremendous amounts was “as American as apple pie” in the nation’s youth, before giving rise to the temperance movement in the 19th century.
Interestingly, the push by “Drys” became inextricably linked to women, several of whom — newly politically empowered — later played a role in bringing about the Volstead Act’s demise. There’s also a thread regarding hostility toward immigrants, and a rift between cities and rural communities.
“Prohibition” writer Geoffrey C. Ward possesses a wonderful ear for language, and the roots of many familiar terms — Skid Row, scofflaw, bootlegger — are sprinkled throughout. There’s also a wealth of delicious anecdotes, like how wealthy brewer Adolphus Busch had Tiffany design custom windows for the stable where he kept his horses.
Part two chronicles how people brazenly circumvented the law, unleashing an array of unintended consequences. The third night (“A Nation of Hypocrites”) builds toward its eventual repeal — all played against a backdrop of colorful figures like Al Capone and George Remus who flouted enforcement.
As usual, Burns eschews the dishearteningly common documentary practice of recreations (as close as he and Novick come is showing alcohol slowly poured into a glass), visually illustrating the piece with still images and vintage video. They also assemble the usual glittering array of stars to lend their voices to the cause, a bevy of historians and narrator Peter Coyote.
The talking heads include Daniel Okrent, the New York Times’ former public editor, who wrote a book on the topic. “When one side of the movement is people inspired by passion, and the other is people inspired by commerce, passion is going to win,” Okrent explains, in one of many observations with implications for present-day politics.
Indeed, historians return time and again to how the intransigence of “drys” inadvertently undermined their cause. If that appears to echo the current Tea Party movement, one suspects it’s hardly an accident.
PBS has consistently allowed Burns to paint on a giant canvas, and he’s generally rewarded that trust. Perhaps foremost, his work (and by extension, PBS) benefits from ahistorical pandering by outlets such as the History channel, making it appear more rarefied and pristine by comparison.
In that context, it’s worth hoisting a glass to “Prohibition.”