Universal Studios, 2009, 140 minutes
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Graham and Stephen Lang
Screenplay by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann and Ann Biderman
Based on the book by Bryan Burrough
Produced by Michael Mann and Kevin Misher
Executive Produced by G. Mac Brown, Robert De Niro, and Jane Rosenthal
Directed by Michael Mann
During the early 1930s, outlaws rampaged across much of America, seemingly robbing banks and kidnapping at will. Some of the more famous of these outlaws were Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Alvin Karpis and the Barkers, but John Dillinger was undoubtedly the star. A wave of celebrity kidnappings and the murder of four law enforcement officers in Kansas City in June 1933 during a botched attempt to rescue a veteran bank robber made it clear that a national police force was required. Local police were forbidden to cross state lines, so the FBI was an obvious candidate for this national police force. However, it had to pass through a steep learning curve since it was under-funded and its agents were not originally allowed to carry guns. The Public Enemies Era lasted from 1933 to 1935, although Karpis, the last holdout, evaded capture until 1936.
The movie opens with the bloody breakout of Dillinger’s gang from prison. Low on funds, they soon rob a bank, where it becomes clear that the local police are hopelessly outmatched. Between jobs, Dillinger falls in love with Billie Frechette but does not even consider the idea of retiring.
Meanwhile, after hunting down and killing Pretty Boy Floyd, FBI agent Melvin Purvis is put in charge of the Chicago office, the front line in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “War on Crime.”
While vacationing in Tuscon, Arizona, the outlaws are snapped up by the police, but Dillinger is separated from the rest of the gang and transferred to Crown Point, Indiana because he had killed a policeman there during a previous robbery. Already a celebrity, he easily charms the press, while gangland lawyer Louis Piquett manipulates the sheriff into agreeing to keep Dillinger in the Crown Point jail, instead of being transferred to the much more secure Michigan State Prison. After a daring escape, he is free but most of his former partners are back in prison.
Against his better judgment, Dillinger joins Baby Face Nelson’s gang, and when a robbery goes sour, they seek shelter at the Little Bohemia Resort in Wisconsin. The FBI learns of their location, and Purvis leads a group of agents on a nighttime raid that ends in tragedy. Although the gang is broken, Dillinger escapes yet again but his luck finally runs out and he is betrayed to the FBI.
The historical inaccuracies start right at the beginning of the movie. The gang’s escape was bloody but Dillinger’s role was limited to arranging for the guns to be smuggled in to the prison. In fact, robbing several banks to raise the money had attracted police attention, and he was sitting in a jail in a small town in Ohio when the breakout took place. Fortunately, his friends returned the favor and broke him out of jail, killing the local sheriff in the process. Furthermore, Dillinger was not an experienced, professional bank robber. He had helped them escape from prison so that he could join their gang and learn the science of robbing banks. Although John “Red” Hamilton helps Dillinger with the breakout in the film, the real Hamilton was one of the prisoners that escaped from the prison.
The portrayal of the gang’s first robbery is incredibly accurate. The real gang operated with clocklike precision, used machine guns and Browning Automatic Rifles to scare off the police, and drove off with hostages outside the car. Dillinger vaulted counters, did not take people’s money, and even gave his coat to a shivering teller, just like the screen version.
As part of the desire to make Dillinger more appealing, the robbery that he committed with Hamilton and an unknown getaway driver where he killed a policeman during a shootout as they were leaving the bank does not appear in the movie. In fact, there is no mention of Dillinger’s pride in his public image as a gentleman bandit who does not kill. Instead, he boasts to Purvis that he is comfortable in kill or be killed situations.
While it is true that Dillinger had no interest in kidnapping, he never met Karpis. Since Karpis had been friends with Nelson and had met Floyd, the scriptwriters can be forgiven for thinking that they should have sought each other out.
Hard to believe as it may be, the prosecutor at Crown Point had been so caught up in Dillinger’s celebrity that he actually posed for a photo with Dillinger resting his arm on his shoulder. The Chicago Police had assigned thirteen police cars and a dozen motorcycle cops to escort him from Chicago Airport to Crown Point to avoid the embarrassment of another escape, since he had already eluded them several months earlier. The breakout scene from Crown Point is extremely faithful to actual events, while refusing to show whether he used a real or fake gun. Actually, driving Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car across state lines is the reason why the FBI became involved in the hunt for Dillinger. Hoover had refused to chase him before then because his limited resources were already strained with a high profile kidnapping and the hunt for Verne Miller, the key suspect in the Kansas City Massacre. In fact, the Kansas City Massacre is ignored, even though solving it was the primary objective of the Bureau. Time constraints ensure that Public Enemies Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly and Miller do not play a part in the movie but they could have at least been referred to.
The real Anna Sage only met Dillinger after Little Bohemia, when Dillinger was seeing Polly Hamilton, a waitress/prostitute who lived with Sage. Showing Dillinger turning to a prostitute to satisfy his needs following Billie’s capture would have tarnished her image as his true love, and made him more human, instead of the larger-than-life figure he is in the film.
The protagonists of Michael Mann’s movies never show fear, so Depp’s Dillinger plays it cool with Frank Nitti, head of the Syndicate (Al Capone’s organization, which had continued to grow even though he was in Alcatraz Prison for income tax evasion), but all of the bank robbers knew that angering the Syndicate would have lethal consequences. The Syndicate never officially declared Chicago out of bounds to the Public Enemies. Instead, the increased police attention meant that the usual fences would no longer deal with them.
Purvis is presented as an experienced agent who is dragged down by well-meaning but raw agents. In reality, he was just as inexperienced. With the choice of Christian Bale for the role, the filmmakers clearly decided to make the fictional Purvis considerably more heroic (and taller) than the real Purvis. The disturbing hero worship of Purvis was probably the price of getting Bale, since he appears unable to play non-heroic roles. While the real Purvis was brave, he was not a fearless man of action. Furthermore, Purvis never threatened to resign unless Hoover obtained experienced law enforcement officials skilled with guns. Admittedly, Hoover had originally wanted agents who were lawyers and gentlemen, rather than armed cowboys, but the humiliation of Little Bohemia showed there was no other choice. The cowboys were headhunted from Southwest police departments and never given credit.
Although the director could not resist a face-to-face confrontation between Purvis and Dillinger, the two men never actually met until the final shootout. Furthermore, Billie had been arrested before the gang went to Tuscon, and the agents had completely missed Dillinger because he drove off as soon as he realized it was a trap.
The sequence of events is deliberately altered to serve the needs of the story. Pretty Boy Floyd was tracked down and killed after Dillinger’s death, and Purvis was only one of eight men firing at Floyd as he ran across an open field. Purvis had refused to allow the bullets that hit Floyd to be tested to find out who had killed him. Apparently, Floyd’s last words were not sufficiently dramatic, since they were changed from “Fuck you. I’m through. You have got me twice.” to “You have killed me, you can rot in hell.” Moreover, Hoover had fast tracked Purvis for a leadership role in the FBI, so he was already head of the Chicago office when the crime wave started. In fact, the two men were friends, mailing whoopee cushions and Viewmasters with scantily clad women to each other. While the movie shows how Hoover used the media to popularize his campaign, it completely ignores the role of Attorney General Homer Cummings, who spearheaded the push for increased powers for the FBI.
The real Dillinger did not want to work with Nelson but had no other options. He had debts and Nelson had a gang, although the mundane nature of debts did not fit the movie’s style. Moreover, the real gang went to Little Bohemia to relax between jobs, not right after a bank robbery. Since Nelson was a trigger-happy maniac, Dillinger never publicly criticized him, instead he simply stopped working with him. The FBI was tipped off by the frightened owner of the Little Bohemia resort, not by refusing to give a wounded gangster pain killers. The actual raid was a disaster, where the agents scrambled to rent cars, got lost in the dark, and made a hasty plan because Purvis was under huge pressure to catch Dillinger. The shooting of the innocent workers is shown perfectly, but the real gang simply slipped out the back, leaving their women behind, while the agents froze all night as they waited for enough light to storm the lodge. The events were changed to make the FBI look competent.
There is no denying the stunning beauty of the nighttime gun battles but several gangsters are killed in a single evening when in reality their deaths occurred over a period of several months, and Purvis was not a one-man-killing-machine. Red Hamilton died from a wound received during a shootout at a roadblock during the escape from Little Bohemia, and Homer Van Meter was executed by a corrupt cop in St. Paul who wanted to clean up his image. Nelson was fatally wounded in a shootout with FBI agent Herman Hollis and senior agent Sam Cowley four months after Dillinger’s death, and neither agent lived to see the next day. Hoover had already begun to sideline Purvis, so Cowley had been put in charge of the Chicago office, and Purvis was left behind to man the phone when Nelson was sighted near Chicago. Delegating Cowley to a minor character to pump up Purvis’ image seems more than a little disrespectful.
Purvis had been Hoover’s golden boy until jealousy at Purvis’ fame drove him to erase Purvis’ contribution during the Public Enemy Era. Not satisfied with denying Purvis credit for his role in hunting down the Public Enemies, Hoover used the powerful resources of the FBI in an endless crusade to destroy Purvis’ reputation. This attempt is well-documented but the movie goes overboard in its attempt to redeem Purvis. Aside from ignoring the fact that Cowley had taken charge of the Chicago office, the screen Purvis intervenes and stops Billie from enduring the harsh treatment ordered by Hoover. It is true that Purvis gave in to his secretary and allowed Frechette a short break from the round the clock interrogation but that was not sufficiently heroic.
Dillinger and Van Meter spent three weeks after Little Bohemia driving around and sleeping in a truck, sick, dirty and hungry, until Piquett was able to arrange for them to stay with a fence, but the bleak, depressing nature of life on the run is deliberately removed from the story. There is no mention of the plastic surgery that Dillinger received, which gave him the confidence to go to baseball games and the movies.
It is simply unbelievable that the filmmakers try to show that Dillinger was betrayed because he was making too many waves. Sage was being threatened with deportation, the huge reward of $15,000 was irresistible during the Depression, and both Piquett and Dillinger’s plastic surgeon were reaching out to the FBI, so it was only a matter of time.
The movie drips amazing period detail, style and a cool vibe with a great soundtrack. The scenes at Little Bohemia were filmed at the real Little Bohemia Lodge, which lends the film authenticity.
Aside from the inexplicable choice of Bale as Purvis, the casting is superb. The men playing Winstead and the rest of the cowboys have a hard, weathered look. Cotillard owns every scene she is in. Giovanni Ribisi nails Karpis: smart, cold, and thinking ahead to where he will retire with his money. Billy Crudup plays Hoover with the correct amount of slimy officiousness. Stephen Graham is spot on as a psychotic Nelson shooting up the inside of the bank. Actually, the only other weak link among the actors is Depp, who projects the danger lurking under Dillinger’s skin but is less successful with the charm.
Mann is a genuinely talented filmmaker, who can produce scenes that have the audience on the edge of their seats but he has little desire to follow the limitations of historical accuracy. In a film like The Last of the Mohicans (1992), this did not matter as much because the lead characters were fictional, but the Public Enemies were recent enough that they are well-documented, which makes his transgressions much harder to overlook.
The movie is based on Bryan Burrough’s book “Public Enemies,” which had originally been conceived as a screenplay for an HBO miniseries. Realizing that his scripts were not good enough to be filmed, he abandoned the screenplay in favor of a non-fiction book, and eventually sold the movie rights to Michael Mann. It is a pity that the set and production design were not used for an HBO series that examined the whole Public Enemy Era, instead of a gorgeous yet flawed movie.
If you want to learn more about the Public Enemy Era, check out my Public Enemy Era Page.