WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Ken Burns knows a good story when he sees one, and his latest PBS epic, "Prohibition," certainly contains all the elements for a highly intoxicating yarn.
"We've all held conventional images of what Prohibition is, whether it's the flapper shimmying in her short skirt, or the speak-easy, or the Model T careening around rain-slicked Chicago streets with machine guns blasting," the veteran filmmaker said with his usual outpouring of enthusiasm. "We have all of that and more. Along with the sex and violence, we've got the political antecedents, the unintended consequences, the colorful bootleggers and the music that came with the era.
"It's a story firing on all cylinders."
Debuting tonight, "Prohibition" is a three-part documentary codirected by Burns and his longtime partner, Lynn Novick. It explores -- with energetic flair -- the rise, reign and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned the sale and manufacture of "intoxicating liquors."
The nation was supposed to go dry. Instead, it just went wild. Millions of law-abiding Americans became lawbreakers, and mob empires were fueled by illegal booze, making a mockery of the justice system. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated.
During the recent TV critics press tour, Burns pointed out that "Prohibition" raises questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago: questions about personal liberties, wedge politics and the proper role of government.
"It might be a balanced-budget amendment, a nonburning the flag amendment, a right-to-life amendment, or something else," he said. "Whenever there's an attempt by some group of people to impose a solution on everybody, you always end up with horrible unintended consequences. This is the only amendment to the constitution that limited human freedom -- and, duh -- it's the only one that's been repealed. Praise the lord."
In the summer of 2003, Burns was strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge with his daughter when he ran into historian Daniel Okrent, who told him he was hard at work on a book about Prohibition. Burns, who has tackled weighty subjects such as the Civil War, baseball and the evolution of jazz, was immediately intrigued. He and Novick came to rely heavily on Okrent, who is one of many "talking-head" experts seen in the documentary.
"We benefited from his extraordinary research and went off on our own tangents," Burns said. "But most importantly, we benefited from his presence in every scene of this film to make it, we think, a lot smarter."
Logging in at just under six hours, "Prohibition" is a sprint compared to some of the marathon productions issued by Burns and his team. Still, the lively script by Geoffrey Ward covers a lot of ground and offers keen insights via interviews, not only with experts but regular folk who lived through the era.
The first chapter of the film, provocatively titled, "A Nation of Drunkards," traces the roots of the temperance movement and tells of a time when the average American over 15 years old consumed the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey a year. All the boozing -- primarily by men -- led to widespread abuse of children and women who had minimal legal recourse.
"A man would got to a saloon, get drunk, and he would come home and do whatever he wanted," historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock says in an on-screen interview.
The second installment, "A Nation of Scofflaws," examines the problems of enforcement during Prohibition, and the third part, "A Nation of Hypocrites," covers the movement toward repeal in 1933. Along the way, viewers are treated to stunning archival footage and introduced to a variety of vivid characters. Among those who jumped out at Burns was George Remus, a Midwest attorney, bootlegger and notorious party animal who used loopholes in the Volstead Act to become a millionaire.
"He's a phenomenal character -- a modern megalomanic in the vein of a Donald Trump," Burns said. "I can't believe that, once this comes out, people in Hollywood won't want to make a film about George Remus. You couldn't make him up."
Hollywood's interest in bootlegger gangsters is, of course, on full display in the HBO Prohibition-era crime drama, "Boardwalk Empire," which also airs Sunday. Burns counts himself among its fans.
"I've really enjoyed watching it. It's terrific," he said. "Americans always love to watch people who get to kill people that (tick) them off, and women who take their clothes off at the drop of a hat."