Friday, July 16, 2010

The Untouchables

A couple of days ago I watched the 1987 film The Untouchables for the first time. Disappointlingly, it presents a statist perspective on the issue of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The opening scene shows Al Capone (Robert De Niro) being interviewed by a journalist as some of his servants simultaneously shave his face, file his fingernails, and shine his shoes. The journalist asks Capone facetiously what it's like to be the virtual mayor of Chicago. Capone responds:

Well, I tell you, you know, it's touching. Like a lot of things in life, we laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true. Some people say, reformers here say, 'Put that man in jail, what does he think he is doing?' Well, what I hope I'm doing. . . is I'm responding to the will of the people. People are gonna drink. You know, I know, we all know that, and all I do is act on that. And all this talk of bootlegging. What is bootlegging? On the boat, it's bootlegging. On Lake Shore Drive, it's hospitality.

That short monologue is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes in the film. With wit and humor, De Niro gets right to the heart of the issue of the hypocrisy and arbitrariness of prohibition. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is spent discrediting in various ways the anti-prohibition (one might almost say libertarian) sentiment behind De Niro's opening monologue.

For example, the film's protagonist, Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), is depicted as a veritable saint. During the press conference in which Mr. Ness announces the formation of a new partnership between the Bureau of Prohibition and the Chicago Police in order to crack down on bootleg alcohol, the following exchange takes place.

Journalist: "What do you think about prohibition, Mr. Ness?"
Mr. Ness: "I'll tell you exactly what I think about prohibition. It is the law of the land."

That exchange, although short, actually reveals everything we need to know about Mr. Ness's motives regarding prohibition throughout the rest of the film. What Mr. Ness is communicating with his short, matter-of-fact answer to the journalists is that his involvement in enforcing prohibition has nothing to do with his personal ethics--what he thinks is right and wrong, and why. It simply has to do with his unquestioned obedience to the state: "It is the law of the land." Period.

Throughout the film, Mr. Ness's saintly character is reinforced with scenes depicting him as a loving husband, caring father, protector of babies, and all-around swell guy. Meanwhile, Al Capone is depicted as a psychotic murderer whose henchmen blow people up with suitcase bombs merely for declining to purchase any of their bootleg liquor. Not exactly three-dimensional characters.

The most laughably absurd and hypocritical part of the film, though, is the last scene, which takes place as Mr. Ness exits the Chicago courthouse victorious after Al Capone has been convicted on tax-evasion charges. A journalist approaches Mr. Ness excitedly, and the following exchange takes place.

Journalist: "Mr. Ness! Mr. Ness! Any comment for the record? 'The man who put Al Capone on the spot.'"
Mr. Ness: "I just happened to be there when the wheel went round."
Journalist: "They say they're going to repeal prohibition. What will you do then?"
Mr. Ness: (With a wry grin) "I think I'll have a drink."

This, coming from the same man who declared war against bootleg alcohol? If it was not already painfully obvious to the audience that Mr. Ness's personal ethics had absolutely nothing to do with his crusade against illegal liquor, this scene removes any shadow of a doubt. The protagonist's sole motivation to support prohibition is his unfailing devotion to the state, nothing more. If the state says alcohol is illegal, Mr. Ness wages an all-out war on bootleg liquor and risks himself and his family in the process. But if the state says it's okay to drink, well then, by Golly, Mr. Ness will have a drink!

Although The Untouchables is an entertaining film showcasing excellent performances by some top-notch actors, the perspective of its story did not sit well with my libertarian nature. Rather than point out the hypocrisy and absurdity of prohibition, or at least depict some real ethical exploration of the subject, the film panders to the inherently circular statist mentality that the law is the law because... well... it's the law.

1 comment:

  1. In the last scene, I thought Mr. Ness (or the writer) was just trying to be sarcastic/humorous: "if the repeal is successful, then I will have a drink." Mr. Ness does not drink in the whole film, what he really means is that the repeal will not have a chance.