Johnny Depp makes for a friendlier, prettier and more marketable protagonist of a populist parable like Public Enemies than do the real life heroes, former Senator Carter Glass (D-Va.) and former Representative Henry B. Steagall (D-Ala.-3). The actor is a global celebrity best known as Captain Jack Sparrow, while the other two were legislative sponsors of the ”never again” Glass/Steagall Act of 1933 which served to keep the banks from bankrupting us again for 66 years until its repeal in 1999. Johnny Depp is still alive, and thus relevant, whereas Glass and Steagall are those old dead guys who wrote that thing that got repealed right before everything started to fall apart.
Depp’s portrayal of Great Depression Era bank robber John Dillinger does more than just add star power to another gangster movie; he inhabits the role in the larger capacity of illuminating the populist anger and the reasons for that anger. Dillinger strikes a symbolic blow for the working stiffs, as well as for future girlfriend Billie Frechette’s attentions, when he slaps down a disrespectful proto-yuppie client at her coat check job. The larger visual representation of class warfare is also, ironically, where the movie itself fails. The abject misery and mean conditions of the Depression are nowhere to be found in this cinematic depiction, but rather are left for the more historically versed viewer to intuit and envision and the less knowledgeable to joyfully elide. Dapper gangsters and hobo jungles are apparently conflicting narratives. Perhaps this is the director’s way of having his cake and eating it too; by crafting a piece with sufficient pop credentials to be marketable but imbued with enough socially and politically relevant commentary to be art.
The movie itself came out in 2009, well into the recession and joblessness and foreclosures initiated by the very banks that were rescued from oblivion by a taxpayer-funded bailout. The soup kitchens, bread lines and tent cities of the 1930s are back; they are just more endearingly outfitted and tastefully concealed. The poor are now championed by Comic Relief and similar telethons that allow us to assuage our guilt with a simple phone call or text and smooth automation. The root cause of the problem goes blissfully unaddressed so as not to make the movie unbankable. The parallels between the Great Depression and the one we are currently mired in go beyond mere similarity to become more of an object lesson in vigilance: Never again. The movie advances that rhetoric by deftly rendered examples augmented with short attention span-friendly violence and bravura. Depp paints his character in sympathetic tones early on, when he tells a depositor at the bank he’s robbing to put his money (what looks like $7 and change) away. “I’m here to rob the bank, not you.” There may never be a better time to tap into public anger and wrap a movie around it. Who doesn’t want to rob a bank right now, at least vicariously, and get a little payback?
John Dillinger is not so much a hero as he is an heroic adversary of an even more despicable enemy. His part in the movie is self identified as a heartland Indiana farm boy, a typical American common man brought low by circumstances beyond his control. He is identified by history as a career criminal and robber. This is an altogether surmountable contradiction. Dillinger as a heroic Robin Hood archetype could not have been possible without a villainous Sheriff of Nottingham FBI in service of the banks as counterpoint. The extraordinary persuasive powers of film and the rhetorical presentation that it excels in could still not pull this elevation to martyrdom off without an equally culpable — and believably malicious — antagonist
The audience can only embrace a bad guy as a good guy if the other bad guy is worse. Baby Face Nelson serves as the sociopathic mirror to Dillinger’s comparative humanity. J. Edgar Hoover makes for a perfect right-wing moralizing ideologue, like some starchier and smaller Pope Borgia, who perpetrated the greater evil on a larger stage that endures today. But the most stellar dichotomy lies between Dillinger the outlaw and good soldier/lawman Melvin Purvis. Christian Bale plays the character more as a soldier following orders than an overzealous cop with political designs, but he looks positively unaltered from his performance as an equally focused and driven Wall Street-er in American Psycho.
The big banks, like the aristocracy, the wealthy and plutocrats in general, have always provided ample fodder for populist ire. This film adds a rogue’s gallery of similarly unsympathetic characters and institutions to round out its parallels to present day actors and events. The first volley in class warfare comes, oddly enough, from a Senate committee (the preeminent bureaucrats) who deride J. Edgar Hoover for being an overreaching bureaucrat, rather than a real cop, whose lack of field experience makes him unfit to lead the nascent FBI. His requests for funding are also rebuffed as an unnecessary expense and an unwarranted expansion of police powers. Hoover, much like Dillinger himself, was a master manipulator of his public image and message discipline. He arranges televised press conferences fronted by his Junior G-Men, a sort of all-American version of an idealized vigilante Boy Scouts.
The second broad swipe at the elite moneyed class now called the 1 percent comes when Dillinger takes his girlfriend Billie Frechette to dinner at a nice restaurant. Dillinger, ever mindful of his rock star status, assumes the other diners are all staring at him. His date corrects him and says “They’re looking at me because they’re not used to having a girl in their restaurant in a $3 dress.”
John Dillinger: Listen, doll. That’s ’cause they’re all about where people come from. The only thing that’s important is where someone’s going.
Billie Frechette: [smiles] Where are you going?
John Dillinger: Anywhere I want (Public).
Frechette goes on to further credential herself as “half Menominee Indian, and I know what some people think about that.” When she asks him about his background, he ups the populist rock star volume to eleven; “I was raised on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”
Dillinger was portrayed as someone clearly in tune with his rock star image and outlaw mythos. He treated reporters covering his arrests more like invited journalists at a press conference than paparazzi inquisitors. He also used these opportunities to cement his status as a larger than life, swashbuckling, common man’s hero with pronouncements like “I stick with my pals and my pals stick with me” when asked about his folk hero image.
J. Edgar Hoover makes for a perfect foil, both legally and stylistically, to the charismatic Dillinger; the consummate anti-rock star. Hoover’s dream team of moral stalwarts aided and abetted by the best of “modern methods” like wiretapping and threats of rendition (“I’ll throw you in a black hole in Cook County Jail”) are still not enough to capture a fugitive with public support like Dillinger. Special Agent Melvin Purvis admits as much to Hoover, saying “Our type cannot get the job done.” Purvis requests real cops to assist in the manhunt. The disconnect here is somewhat akin to the gap between labor and management, where unworkable ideas flow from a head office where no one has any hands-on, real world experience. Hoover knows what he wants in terms of image and ideology, but has no field experience to temper his idealism with. Purvis supports his ideas and direction, but lacks the tools and wherewithal to bypass the constraints of reality and bring them to fruition. Think of Purvis as being Dilbert and Hoover the pointy-haired Boss.
The escalation in the FBI’s hardware and tactics (faster cars and machine guns) and shift in policy to a more malleable and extralegal execution in their war on crime have clear resemblances to today’s war on terror. Both Frechette and gang member Tommy Carroll are tortured and the “Lady in Red” is threatened with deportation on trumped up charges for intelligence on Dillinger’s whereabouts. Dillinger uses asymmetrical warfare tactics in using a wooden gun as a ruse to outmaneuver superior numbers and by using his fans and supporters as a grassroots populist insurgency. His use of everything available to the hopelessly outnumbered is reminiscent of the guerrilla theater of the Occupy Wall Street movement where minimal effort can provide maximum results in the face of overwhelming opposition. Dillinger’s gang was no match for Hoover’s, but the FBI did not have folk hero status to use as leverage either.
Dillinger has his last rock star moment in the movie theater in a mise-en-abyme sequence where Clark Gable, in gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama speaks a prescient line about the price of individuality; “Die the way you lived, all of a sudden, that’s the way to go. Don’t drag it out” (IMDb). When he is shot down outside the theater, his fans show the darker side of celebrity worship when they dip handkerchiefs into his pooled blood so that they can keep a little piece of history.