1 Star - Destructive
Sometimes even the best cinema is about the worst in human nature. So goes the story of the life and death of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), an infamous bank robber of the 1930’s, who after only a few months became an American legend.
The media have given us images of the American Gangster of the Roaring 20’s and Depression 30’s as a swaggering, machine-gun-toting, wise guy, who is part Robin Hood and part juvenile delinquent. While some take offense at the stereotype, a significant number of these characters came out of immigrant groups looking for a shortcut to the American dream.
“Public Enemies” not only gives us a glimpse into the final year of Dillinger’s life, but it also helps us see why America grew from a series of independent States to a unified country without state borders. We also see the emergence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the publicity-driven leadership of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Prior to the 1930’s, Americans had a distinct sense of State identification – in some ways, more so than their identification as an American. While we still see ourselves today as “Californians” or “Texans,” few people think of their State as “a country unto itself.” In the 1930’s, you could still commit a crime in one state and then hide across the border in another and expect to be safe from the law.
Maybe part of this myth of independence was due to the fact that we still lived in a cash-based society and we hadn’t yet reached the ability to track every cell phone call or follow vehicles with a GPS tracking device. In the days of Dillinger, you could rob a bank, spend the cash somewhere else, and blend in as free as the local grocer or dry cleaner.
Hoover’s new FBI set out to change all of that. In “Public Enemies,” we follow the chase of Dillenger by newly-ordained Agent Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale). For the fist time, the U.S. had a “national police force” with primitive forms of technological eavesdropping. Hoover made his mark in history by becoming the first and most notable controller of information about anyone he believed would be a threat to the United States, a role that later gave him power over Presidents and Congressmen, in addition to the more traditional criminals on the street.
John Dillinger’s collapse also gives the viewer a glimpse at some other notable criminals of his era, including Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd. These guys arrogantly believed that they could control anything and anyone or that there wasn’t a local police force that couldn’t be bought. As a result, they also took on hero status with those who were down on their luck during the Depression. Men envied their ability to “stick it” to the banks that they believe had screwed them over, while women were drawn to the “bad boy” mystique they represented. An example of this is seen when Dillinger picked up a young admirer named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who stayed with him to the end believing that he as strong enough to take care of her. When she met him and asked him what he did for a living, he replied, “I rob banks for a living.” This might set off a red flag to anyone else, but to an impressionable young woman it was an addicting attraction to a man of strength who would make sure she was cared for.
There are no surprises in this story, since we know from history that Dillinger, like many of his cronies, eventually died in a volley of gunshots. Some might say that this morality tale correctly shows that if you “live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” The problem with “Public Enemies” is that in order to make the story interesting, the film portrays Dillinger as just a nice kid who went a little wrong along the way. After all, wasn’t Johnny Depp the cute rogue in “Pirates Of The Caribbean” that robbed everyone and still remained the lovable hero? John Dillinger wasn’t a nice guy.
It may be true that no one is going to go out and mimic Dillinger’s actions today, but the fact remains that his life is a portrait of an immoral disregard for anyone who stood in his way. This is not a documentary about men who got what they deserve. Rather, it is a portrayal of a charming young man who eventually got taken out by the egomaniac head of the FBI. In the end, “Public Enemies” casts a pall on those who seek justice and makes a sympathetic hero out of a destructive bad guy.
Discussion for those who have seen the film:
What is it that makes so many people interested in flamboyant criminals? Why do so many films portray them as sympathetic characters?
Dillinger’s disregard for human life reveals a sociopathic individual. Do you believe such a person is mental ill or evil?
The attraction of a “bad boy” for some young women is predictably destructive in their lives. Why do you think this is so common?