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Jean Bethke Elshtain


Irresistible—and Troubling

The beauty of Johnny Depp's John Dillinger.

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There are moments in Michael Mann's Public Enemies that take one's breath away. Mann is known for his ferocious closeups—the pores in the skin, the nearly invisible scar by the left eye, the whisper of facial hair on the lead actress' upper lip—but these moments, and there are many, fade in one's memory, trumped by the hyper-reality of cinematographer Dante Spinotti's camera as it "records" moments in the life of John Dillinger, bank robber, murderer, folk hero.

In one particularly compelling sequence, we witness the plane carrying Dillinger back to jail as it lands on a tiny airstrip in a hard-driving rain, the scene illumined by dozens of flash bulbs. With each flash, as men scramble for the best angle, rain-drenched ponchos shedding small rivulets of water, a portion of the scene is seared on our visual memory. Dillinger deplanes, a sardonic grin playing across Johnny Depp's softly beautiful face, giving his character just the right combination of menace and "aw shucks, Ma, what's all the fuss?" The chummy relations between the press, Dillinger's captors, his jailors, his prosecutors, and the notorious criminal himself are on full display. (The newsreel of this event reveals the chumminess with unmistakable clarity. The liberty Mann has taken is to represent these events unfolding in the rain. Rain in the movies is more often menacing than carressing or soothing. No exception here.)

One is stunned—or ought to be—by the loosey-goosey nature of it all as Dillinger leans one arm lazily across the prosecutor's shoulder with a smiling (lady) sheriff flanking him on the other side, declaring that there is no way "Johnny" will escape from her jail. (He does, and she loses her job, as does the prosecutor.) Perhaps, however, we shouldn't be quite so surprised and dismayed. Things have tightened up considerably in the intervening decades, to be sure, especially on the law-enforcement side, yet a symbiotic coziness between (some) wrongdoers and the media parades across our television sets daily. Consider the case of slime-ball Drew Peterson, likely murderer of two wives. Matt Lauer on the Today Show speaks to him as if he were a pal. "Well, Drew, how does it feel to be indicted at long last?"—that sort of thing. Although 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford offered a more complex meditation on criminality and celebrity, Public Enemies has its moments—the airport-in-the-rain scenes being among the most memorable.

Some critics have complained that there is too much of a cinéma vérité feel to Public Enemies when "everyone knows" this is a crafted drama. That misses the point, surely. Mann utilizes a cinéma vérité technique to generate visual hyper-realities that are more "real" than reality itself. We see more: more vividly and in detail not afforded to the naked eye. It's as if we are looking through a vast magnifying glass at a pulsating scene. Mann alternates these moments—thankfully—with more ordinary ways of seeing. Two and a half hours of hyper-reality would be too much altogether. Gorged, we would be compelled to avert our gaze.

We all—or all of us past a certain age—know the name John Dillinger, to which Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde must be added. Pretty Boy is slain in hyper-reality in one of the film's early sequences, having been hunted down by the upright G-Man Melvin Purvis (played by a stoical Christian Bale, absent his Batman growl). J. Edgar Hoover's new bureau is targeting the most notorious "public enemies" in its first-ever "war against crime." (Billy Crudup, in a supporting role, portrays Hoover as a canny abyss of ambition—which seems about right—and pretty much steals the show in the process.)

Dillinger's active criminal years were few, but he cut quite a figure and, in so doing, earned a spot in the American pantheon of law-breaking folk heroes. Why? To answer, one must locate his sometimes murderous escapades—although he was no ruthless stone-cold killer like Nelson—in the Midwest, which seemed to spawn these sorts of characters, with Chicago as the mecca. Foreclosures and hard times. Market crashes. The dust bowl. Folk populism needed to locate villainy in a specific place; the demons must be personalized. The most visible candidates were the banks. In robbing banks, of course, crooks like Dillinger were stealing people's deposits, but that didn't count for much insofar as folklore was concerned. What mattered was that someone was taking on the bloodsuckers, humiliating them, making bankers and the "laws" they piously invoked look foolish in the process. Add to the tabloid journalism a wry, killer smile, dapper dressing, and a way with women: Dillinger played his part to the hilt, embracing his own celebrity knowing all the while it would kill him in the end. It did. He was gunned down (having been set up by an acquaintance, the madam of a brothel) outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. (The theater, renamed, still stands, and Dillinger's demise in 1934 is marked each year.)

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