Friday, July 10, 2009

Public Enemies (2009) review

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“That was the attitude at the time; that the authorities were buffoons who couldn’t get Dillinger, and these were same authorities that couldn’t fix the Depression, couldn’t relieve the suffering from the Dust Bowl, and Dillinger was attacking the institutions, i.e., the banks that had made everybody’s life a misery.”--Director Michael Mann to Roger Ebert, June 19, 2009.
For anyone who ever wondered, “What exactly was John Dillinger really like as a person?” Michael Mann’s sad-but-lively love song to the Depression-era gangster is going to be a real treat, and one that was a long-time-coming. Someone finally got the story right. Why did it take so long? There are a number of very simple reasons, but when it comes to crime, American culture tends to go through up-and-down cycles of punishment versus rehabilitation.
We never learn, and the majority of our “big house” prisons have served as criminal-factories, producing hardened men and women who might have never gone down the road to even greater crimes then they would have. In an interview transcript from June, Mann sides with a majority of corrections administrators, wardens, and even corrections officers’ unions that the system didn’t work over eighty years ago. It doesn’t now:
This is off on a sidetrack. I wanted to know about prison because it’s the prison that made him, those prison conditions made him into who he was. Of course, all of this is about finding character, what’s the character, what’s behind it. …We came up with a 1936 Bureau of Prisons investigation because that State Prison was a scandal. They had institutionalized forms of torture, of beatings, suffocation of people in strait jackets--it was horrendous, it was a hellhole. And he survived that at the top tier of that kind of population so this was a tough, tough guy.[i]
Indeed he was, and he was a product of his times as all of us are. Today, we would say that John Dillinger had become “institutionalized” by a brutal criminal justice system, and it all began with a juvenile crime of robbing the town grocer for $50. Dillinger was given ten years by a biased judge, and that was that. The die was cast from a child’s mistake, and just about anyone under the circumstances would have wanted some payback.
This is why Dillinger wanted to be known and why he didn’t wear disguises when he robbed banks.
Now that the national focus on punishment versus rehabilitation has shifted and nearly 80 years have passed, we’re able to look back at the 1933-34 crime wave with better information, more perspective, and a clearer vision. To recount the general plotline created by Mann and his collaborators is to tell the real story of the thirteen months of John Dillinger’s short life (although some would disagree that he was the man shot in the alleyway of the Biograph Theater in the very hot summer of 1934—granted, a long-shot if ever there was one).
“Public Enemies” couldn’t have had a better writer-director. Mann’s oeuvre in the crime genre is practically unassailable with “Thief” (1981), “Manuhunter” (1985), “Heat” (1995), and the more recent “Collateral” (2004), starring Tom Cruise. Few directors are better at depicting crime than Michael Mann.
It’s fun writing this review since I personally know of a few locations here in South Bend that Johnnie robbed back in 1933-34. Michiana was literally his stomping ground and he hid around this area and several nearby locations, some of them controlled by the Chicago Outfit who would hide bank robbers for money up-front. Just down the road from where I’m writing this right now is State Road 6 (built in 1932!) and the town of Walkerton, Indiana, down which the Dillinger gang was chased by Indiana State Patrolman Arthur Keller in 1933.
This jibes with a ruined location at nearby Koontz Lake that my father used to show me and my brother in the 1970s, which as far as I can tell has never been documented. I also know and have known people who were at the Biograph Theater the evening of Dillinger’s assassination by federal agents, a husband and wife who shall remain nameless in this review. As a point-of-fact, I was told by the husband before his recent passing that, “Someone pointed Dillinger out to us in the audience.” [ii] “M” and “K” were kids at the time, and when they saw the commotion in the alley of the Biograph, they fled the scene out of fear. The husband also saw Nelson’s shooting-spree in downtown South Bend and the safe house that the gang hid in, allegedly on Michigan Street, just blocks away from where I viewed this motion picture. How do I know these anecdotes are true? When “M” died earlier this year, I conveyed some of the stories to their children—they had never been told any of it. “M” and “K” weren’t supposed to be in East Chicago that hot summer night in 1934, they were only 12 and 13 years old, respectively, and they never sought any fame over what they claim to have witnessed.
Highway Patrolman Arthur Keller’s (who also appears to have had no reason to lie) oral account, conducted on October 27, 1971 at the Walkerton Police Station by Interstate Trucking historian Harry D. Woods captures the real John Dillinger:
He came from one of the most wonderful families I ever met. I can only say one thing for John Dillinger—he was an organizer. He had a sense of direction like a bird. He proved it to a bunch of us guys one night in Chicago back in November 16, 1933. He was a driver that if he was alive today, I’d still take my hat off to him. As far as John Dillinger was concerned, he got the blame for everything. I remember one particular incident when he was in his heyday. The bank of Modoc [sic], Indiana, a little two-bit bank, was robbed. There was a bank robbery in Pennsylvania that day. Racine, Wisconsin, was robbed that day. John Dillinger was indentified as the gunman at all three of these banks. The fact was, John Dillinger was sitting on his can in an automobile, a Buick, behind the bank at Racine. He was never in the bank.[iii]
This is the very same John Dillinger as portrayed by director Michael Mann and his co-writers and a bevy of researchers hired for the movie production, and they really did their homework. The November 1933 incident Keller refers to is one in which Keller was pressured to execute the bank robber illegally in an ambush by his Indiana State Trooper superiors, probably why he didn’t go into further detail. As usual, Dillinger got the jump on them and got away, but it was very close.
Mann and his collaborators attention to historical detail and accuracy is just staggering, and merely adhering to the facts has given him and the audience for this film a real feast for the eyes, quite a ride. For example: nearly every movie ever made about John Dillinger—until now—has gotten the color of “the Lady in Red’s” (Hungarian East Chicago madam and hooker, Anna Sage) dress wrong. She wore a white-blouse with an orange skirt when she accompanied Dillinger to the Biograph. There are many other examples just like it in Public Enemies, and truth be told, I’ve read nearly everything about the man and his life and was expecting Mann and company to screw-up. They never did once. From the very beginning, to the very end of the film, I was expecting some really ridiculous distortion of history, and it never really came.
There is one scene that appears to be stylistic where Dillinger strolls right into the FBI’s Chicago Field Office, and he definitely had the balls for it as well as the cunning to get away with it. Call it a nod to social banditry and the noble outlaw who restricts his robberies to the rich, the banks. Right now, you couldn’t have a timelier message. The truth is that it actually happened, it’s not fanciful!
Public Enemies is the first motion picture to accurately express the meaning of the life of John Dillinger and his place in the history of America’s criminal underworld and our modern law enforcement apparatus. Mann intercuts between Dillinger’s pursuer, Melvin Purvis, Dillinger and his gang, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Al Capone’s Lieutenant, Frank Nitty, and his associates who harbored the Dillinger gang for money. They sure weren’t doing it for their health, and when Johnny crossed from Indiana to Illinois after his incredible escape from Crown Point Jail with a wooden-gun, Hoover saw his opening and federalized the pursuit of Dillinger that had been on shaky legal ground up to that point. The rest is history.
After that, Dillinger and all the rest of the bank robbing gangs were a liability to the growing, cancerous networks of organized crime that were operating “coast-to-coast.” For decades, Hoover would deny their very existence and wouldn’t mount a national campaign against them until he had no choice. But it was easier to get more congressional appropriations for the FBI through getting John Dillinger and the other bank robbers of that bygone era. After 1934, the FBI would move towards becoming the nation’s police, and her record has been very patchy indeed, including collusion with organized crime and the harassment of political dissidents. Something died at the Biograph Theater that night, and it wasn’t just John Dillinger.
Public Enemies features a very solid ensemble cast and uses it in a way that would make the late Robert Altman proud, and it’s a very kinetic action film while being a great history lesson. You can tell that Michael Mann has wanted to direct this film for at least thirty years, if not more, and according to him, the Kentucky-born-and-raised Depp came to the project with the same passion, if not more. The Chicagoan director truly did his research. Public Enemies is a labor of love and an important movie not to be missed.


[i] Mann, Michael. “John Dillinger, scholar of crime: The Michael Mann Transcript. The Chicago Sun-Times. June 26, 2009. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090626/PEOPLE/906269998
[ii] “M” and “K” to the author, January 2009.
[iii] Woods, Harry D. “The Story of Mr. Arthur Keller as Told to Harry D. Woods.” Indianapolis: Indiana State Highway oral history project, 1971. 10-11.