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Jean Bethke Elshtain

Irresistible—and Troubling

The beauty of Johnny Depp's John Dillinger.

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.)

The film romanticizes Dillinger's love interest, his relationship with Billie Frechette, turning it into the monogamous swoon of two beautiful people who pledge never to desert one another. As Billie served time for conspiring to help Dillinger escape capture, he took up with a couple of floozies. But in the film, Depp and the talented and exquisite Marion Cottilard (Academy Award-winner for her incandescent portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose) fill the screen with iconic closeups, somewhat reminiscent of the most beautiful and famous of all such closeups—those of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951). The truth of it all? We don't much care. Just show us those beautiful people. The closeups help us once again to appreciate why movie stars—real movie stars—are different from the rest of us, physically blessed with a kind of preternatural grace and beauty. The camera magnifies rather than diminishes these qualities. They are larger than life.

The television screen minimizes. There is grace and beauty, but it is manageable—it isn't the stuff of dreams. Ah, but that big screen. One finds it as irresistible—and troubling—as Augustine found the Roman theater. His great biographer, Peter Brown, tells us that Augustine had an immoderate love affair with the world. It was both the human habitus, given us by God, and a temptation, drawing us away from God, away from the immutable towards the mutable. As creation, it is good. God declares it so. But human beings muck things up and turn that which is beautiful, or can be, into something tawdry, shameful. Augustine clearly frequented the theater as a young man. He loved performances of the classics, even as he wondered why we should weep over strangers. His vitriol, dished out so cleverly and powerfully in the first ten deconstructive books of The City of God, was reserved for what might be called the "civil theology" of the late antique world, expressed in the theater in a debasing form.

Augustine's most telling passages condemn outright the misuse and abuse of women for theatrical spectacles, intended to venerate and valorize all too male gods or their representations. But even when it is not so obviously defiled, Augustine suggests, theater is problematic. Perhaps we do well to think of film, at least at times, along similar lines: a vexation, a temptation, and yet also testimony to human sociality (films are exquisitely social enterprises, involving a complex company of persons), to human creativity, and to our capacity to create memorable moments of beauty and drama. In transforming a charming scoundrel into a beautiful charming scoundrel, making him quite irresistible, film lures us in to something … but how do we name it?

Public Enemies is not a film that confronts these or other ethical and moral issues explicitly—it insinuates, intimates. There is an important distinction to be marked between a morally fraught or challenging film—and Public Enemies, given how attractive are its criminal protagonists is one such—and a morally damaging film. (These are categories I will be expanding and elaborating in a book project tentatively entitled "Movies and the Moral Life.") Most important among the morally fraught themes is Johnny Depp himself. We are brought face to face with physical beauty on the big screen and just how potent and irresistible it remains. But how on earth does one think about that ethically? Human beings are drawn to earthly beauty. It seems a gift from "the gods." Beauty helps us to ponder periods of "uglification": for example, state social regimes built on ressentiment, on public envy of what one doesn't have, leveling down, creating conditions that inhibit and even deface that which is beautiful.

That, surely, cannot be the Christian way. I am ongoingly struck by St. Augustine's lyricism, his words breathtakingly beautiful as he depicts the beauty of this earth. We desire, we yearn for a kind of perfection of that which simply is. We are—let's be honest—drawn to the beautiful child rather than the plain child, for it is not true that all babies are equally "cute" any more than it is true that all men look like Johnny Depp. We don't stop there, of course, but the eye moves that direction. Grace and charm make the world more alluring and more bearable. Yet Christianity asks us to offer ourselves in love to the disoriented homeless schizophrenic who spews nonsense, reeks of urine, and has head lice. How do we "work this" without diminishing the fact of physical and natural beauty that enlivens our existence but may also trap us exclusively in that which is mutable? Consider the lilies of the field … yes, more glorious than Solomon and yet more fragile. They turn brown, they wither, they decay—as earthly things must—but oh they were so beautiful.

Jean Bethke Elshtain's Gifford Lectures have been published as Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Basic Books).

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