My childhood friend Jackie Reilly spent more time in the principal’s office than the principal did. Or so he would have us believe. Whenever we chose up sides for a game of “guns,” our postwar version of “cops and robbers,” he played John Dillinger. Typecasting. For obvious reasons, no one wanted to play Baby Face Nelson or Pretty Boy Floyd, equally famous characters in our comic books. Anyone Jackie picked for his side became simply another gang member. It made little difference, since J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men would always chase them into Pudgy Donohue’s backyard and shoot them with Tommy guns. Jackie died spectacularly every Saturday morning, spinning backward and twitching on the lawn as he breathed his last.
More than Al Capone and Jesse James, Dillinger stands at the pinnacle of the pantheon of mythologized American criminals. A loner, defying all authority to protect his peculiar understanding of personal integrity, Dillinger played by his own rules. That’s why Jackie Reilly wanted to imitate him. Yet society destroys people like Dillinger in order to survive.
Defiance and self-induced destruction provide the stuff of tragedy. The combination has given dramatists a library of complex characters over the centuries. In one culture after another, we return to the brave hero who would rather sacrifice himself than compromise. We weep at the destruction of the man of singular valor, yet we gloat when society makes him pay for his ambitions. By placing our own arrogance or sinfulness in this perversely admirable figure and then sacrificing him, we try to purge ourselves of evil. This held true for our band of nine-year-olds. When World War II ended, we kids no longer dug foxholes in an empty lot from which to shoot foreign invaders. Looking for a worthy enemy, we turned from Nazis to Dillinger, a criminal who had been dead for over a decade.
“Public Enemies” resurrects the perennial tragic hero for one more ritual slaughter. To what purpose this time? The question holds the key to understanding the film, since gangster films tell us more about the culture that produces them than they do about the characters they present or the historical period they ostensibly analyze. This film recreates the Depression-era events, but uses them to comment on the tragedies we have fashioned for ourselves in 21st-century America. Whether the director Michael Mann, who co-authored the script with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, had such a purpose clearly in mind does not alter what he put on the screen. Directors and screenwriters claim to be storytellers, but the best of them, like fiction writers, do more than tell a story. Melville’s Moby-Dick, for example, offers readers more than the chronicle of a fishing trip with a crazed sea captain.
“Public Enemies” presents a good story, but nothing surprising: Dillinger went on a crime spree and the F.B.I. killed him as he came out of a Chicago movie house in July 1934. The film gains interest with spectacular action sequences. Mann offers enough bank robberies and shootouts to keep even a restless 12-year-old boy in his seat for the full two hours and 15 minutes. Yet the story lacks sparkle. And the characters, even Dillinger himself, fade into the narrative without demanding much emotional investment. One senses a conscious strategy here. Johnny Depp, as the protagonist, and Christian Bale, playing his nemesis Agent Melvin Purvis, stand at a distance from their characters, appearing content to accompany them as they wander from one action sequence to the next. Their motivation remains in the background. Does Dillinger need the money, or does he want to humiliate law enforcement agencies? Or does he merely enjoy living on the edge? Purvis becomes obsessed with his job, but does he seek personal satisfaction or a leading role in the new F.B.I.? Or has he allowed himself to become a Hoover sycophant?
Gangsters reach the screen as men for their own season, not all seasons. James Cagney in “Public Enemy” (1931), Paul Muni in “Scarface, Shame of a Nation” (1931) and Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar” (1932) created the template for gangsters of the Depression era. They rose to the top of the mob, yet despite their ingenuity they overreached. They stepped out of the crowd and became captivated by their own ruthless success. Society had to crush them for their pretensions. In the Depression, society crushed everyone, regardless of their hard work and single-mindedness. In “White Heat” (1949) Cagney’s Cody Jarrett became a psychopathic killer, who blows himself to pieces rather than surrender. During the cold war this insane strategy, when applied by the two nuclear powers, was called Mutual Assured Destruction. In “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) we saw images of the loveable flower children of the 1960s, who defied social customs in their search for freedom on the open road. In the “Godfather” series of the mid-1970s, Francis Ford Coppola presented a highly moral critique of the world’s descent into amorality. Among the Corleones, good and evil have no clear margins; it’s “only business.” In “Bugsy” (1991) Warren Beatty flashed that broad goofy smile and made Bugsy Siegel into a used-car salesman about to make his fortune in the dot.com boom.
Now Mann has given us a Dillinger for the bailout generation. The action sequences make him an old-time gangster, whose Tommy gun rains death on lawmen and bystanders without discrimination. Yet Dillinger remains opaque, in the image of today’s buttoned-down gangsters. Today’s mobsters do not rob banks; they loot them with credit-default swaps. Faceless and all but anonymous in their striped suits, they no longer race their black sedans down country roads to evade the sirens of their tormentors. Today, gangsters ride their corporate jets and stretch limos to board meetings and Senate committee hearings. They don’t brandish machine guns; they send e-mails from their laptops. They don’t have sworn enemies in law enforcement; they have well-paid lawyers who find the loopholes to make their activities appear legal. And what of their motives when they have more millions than they could possibly spend in a lifetime? Ego? Proving to themselves that they are above the law? The thrill of the chase? They are ruthless, but dull. Mann’s John Dillinger would fit right in. But would Jackie Reilly insist on being Bernie Madoff during our Saturday game of Ponzi scheme?
As a narrative device, Hoover’s F.B.I. functions as antagonist, but thematically the organization is Dillinger’s henchman. Of course. The screenplay grew not from a novel but from Bryan Burrough’s historical study, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I., 1933-34. Note the plural in the title. Could it include the F.B.I. itself as an enemy of the people? J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) needs a highly publicized arrest to secure funding for his new organization and increase his personal power. He enlists lawmen, little more than hired thugs actually, from Texas to provide muscle to back up his band of “scientific investigators.” He authorizes wire-taps, has the Immigration and Naturalization Service threaten to deport an uncooperative witness and even urges “enhanced interrogation techniques” to encourage Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) to reveal his whereabouts. Hoover and Purvis are odious. We don’t want them to succeed, but we have little emotional connection to Dillinger. Events just play themselves out for these equally ruthless thugs.
The script, too long by a quarter hour, presents a fragmented story. Like today’s headlines, it forces us to fill in several gaps. Frank Nitti and the Chicago mob turn against Dillinger because, as a celebrity criminal, he has swayed public opinion and Congress to allow the F.B.I. jurisdiction over interstate crimes, thus endangering the Mafia’s nationwide syndicate. How they reach this conclusion and what they do about it remains shadowy. Other characters are equally nebulous. The madam who turns Dillinger over to the F.B.I. appears from nowhere, and his relationship to her or one of her workers pops up too suddenly to be convincing. The script never gives Billie, Dillinger’s real girlfriend, enough context either. Marion Cotillard, an Academy-Award winning actor, has too little to work with in her role as the obligatory “girl” brought on to humanize the gangster. An F.B.I. agent who has previously had only two lines at a staff meeting draws the crucial dramatic task of reporting Dillinger’s final words to her in what could have been a climactic coda to the story—who is he?
For action and entertainment, “Public Enemies” stands out among this year’s summer films. Depp’s Dillinger fits into the pattern of today’s super criminals. He’s not a fascinating sociopath, like Cagney’s Tommy Powers. He’s just doing business like Michael Corleone. I don’t think Jackie Reilly would be interested in playing him either.