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The Real Public Enemies

Jul. 15, 2009
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Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp movie filmed in Wisconsin, has so many interesting things to say about what’s going on in America today, it’s too bad almost all of its messages are subliminal.

The film is basically a grown-up cartoon. Depp and his fellow actors skulk around in hats and overcoats playing 1930s bank robbers. So do Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis and the actors who play the federal agents pursuing John Dillinger and his gang.

So many key scenes take place at night with crowds of agents in hats and overcoats trading fire with crowds of gangsters in hats and overcoats, it’s hard to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Which is, of course, one of the more obvious points.

It’s a point that’s reinforced when police torture civilians—including the ultimate breach of civility in a simpler age, hitting a lady!—in Purvis’ pursuit of Dillinger. Purvis’ quest seems to be based more on a Captain Ahab-like egotistical obsession than on any real concern for public safety. In the background, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wants to use the publicity to help create a national police force operating with few ethical restrictions and even less political oversight, something he ultimately accomplished.

It drove Hoover crazy that the public often sided with the outlaws instead of his own agents even though Dillinger was nowhere near as beautiful as Johnny Depp.

The legend of Purvis and his men gunning down Dillinger after he was betrayed by a “Lady in Red” outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago was the beginning of the government’s own romantic mythmaking.

We can trace the FBI’s success at fabricating heroism straight through to the clumsy Bush administration attempts to put out disinformation about the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the death of NFL star Pat Tillman to try to glamorize the war in Iraq.

Natural Reaction

The romanticizing of small-time hoodlums for robbing banks and breaking out of jails in the ’30s was more of a natural reaction to the times. Woody Guthrie explained it best in his song Pretty Boy Floyd: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

The conclusion of the song goes: “And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam, you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.”

Film director Michael Mann chose not to hit everyone over the head with the modern-day parallels. He was happy filming comic-book gun fights with fire roaring out of every barrel. But the parallels are everywhere. One of the reasons upright ’30s citizens had no qualms about cheering on bank robbers was that the banks had already robbed many of them. Foreclosures had taken their farms and their livelihoods.

Dillinger actually used one of the lines in the movie to customers in a bank in Greencastle, Ind., near where I grew up: “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours.”

Maybe this is the point where I should confess my own connection, possibly mythical, to the Dillinger gang.

When I was growing up in Indiana, my grandfather sold old cars off a side lot of his small farm. One of my favorites looked exactly like a lot of the cars crashing around in the dark in Public Enemies. It was black coupe out of the ’30s or ’40s with a running board.

I loved to pretend I was driving it with someone in hot pursuit. My brother would hang on the running board and shoot at whoever was after us. We always got away.

The thing is, there were rumors that my grandfather, in an earlier era, actually provided cars to some people who had special requirements such as really fast engines and bulletproof bodies.

At the time I knew him, he was a really kind, loving grandfather. I sat on his lap to look at the cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post. I never asked him about the stories, but I’ve always wanted to believe them.

The same banks whose practices helped create the Great Depression came within a hair of doing it again recently, this time to us. The foreclosures continue.

Few if any people are robbing banks to get their revenge, but we sure enjoy it when a token highflier like investment fund manager Bernard Madoff gets marched off to prison.

One direct connection Public Enemies does make is between the FBI and organized crime. It wasn’t just the notorious Lady in Red who betrayed Dillinger. Also providing information to the FBI was Frank Nitti, the organized crime boss of Chicago.

Dillinger’s celebrated small-town bank robberies were making it harder for law enforcement to ignore big-time organized crime whose existence Hoover would deny for decades. The little guy had to be put out of business so the big guys could flourish.

Isn’t that America?


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