Public Enemy Number One
IF YOU took a quick poll of public opinion around you, asking, ‘Do you think bankers are responsible for the current recession?’ you would get approving nods, see hands reaching for pitchforks and realise a mob was about to form. Yes, it is a tough time to be in financial services – ask Sir Fred Goodwin before the mob gets him.
Which is why Public Enemies arrives at cinemas dripping with historical relevance. Set in Depression-era 1930s America, the mood among the general population is one of resentment and disgust with the bankers they hold responsible for the Wall Street crash and the ensuing collapse of the economy. It is also the era of bank robbers with evocative names like Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd filling the public’s imagination (and today? Shifty Eyes Madoff, anyone?)
But the most famous of these was John Dillinger, played here with confident ease by Johnny Depp (always watchable). Dillinger was so successful a robber, so elusive a criminal and so popular an icon that he was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of the FBI by J Edgar Hoover.
Dillinger and his gang robbed more than a dozen banks between May 1933 and July 1934, stealing more than $300,000 (which is $5m in today’s money). Because he made a point of only taking thebank’s money (telling all the customers to keep their cash) the press and public saw him as a modern day Robin Hood, robbing those who made their money by robbing others.
This was a hard man to catch. Public Enemies is his story but it also sheds light on the agent who relentlessly pursued him from state to state. Christian Bale, who’s normally so intense an actor you fear your couch will catch fire, underplays his agent Melvin Purvis, his accent as slow and steady as his determination to catch Dillinger, America’s first Public Enemy Number One.
What’s remarkable, at least for these types of ‘cops ’n robbers’ movies, is the lack of personal emnity between them. Both are just doing their jobs. If you’re expecting the brooding aggression of director Michael Mann’s previous male protaganists (De Niro and Pacino in Heat or Cruise and Fox in Collateral) then you’re looking for the wrong kind of testosterone.
Dillinger is a charismatic rebel, Purvis a Southern gentleman. It’s left to Baby Face Nelson (Britain’s Stephen Graham) to be the real ghoul of the story.
In many ways Dillinger is like an earlier American folk hero, Jesse James. Both were criminals whose apparent honour and choice of victim appealed to the common man. Both were immortalised in the media of their day. And both knew, despite their fame and because of their fame that their lives would be short.
Watch The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (with a moody Brad Pitt) and you’ll see what I mean. The cinematography, all browns, grays and nightime yellows, remove any distracting colours, allowing you to focus on James’ haunted face.
In Public Enemies it’s no different. Same colours, same focus, same attention to period detail. Dillinger, like James, is fascinated by his image in the newspapers, on cinema news reels and how it reflects back in the eyes of those around him. Celebrity is appealing to him (he won’t do kidnappings, for example, because the public, ‘don’t like kidnappings’) even if it spells his certain doom. With each successful bank raid or escape from prison comes the realisation that despite his charm or his smarts, his luck will run out, that all this will come to a violent end.
There is probably a lesson there. Something about the poisoned chalice of fame. Certainly, all the serious crooks in the movie keep their heads down, working the numbers in shady backrooms (another reference to today’s boardroom-led crisis) rather than commit daylight robbery.
But Public Enemies is also about what desperation does to a man. Dillinger, with his charm, would have been a great entrepreneur today, but it was desperation which drove him into crime. It is desperation which ultimately forces Agent Purvis to use every trick (blurring the line between right and wrong) in the book to catch Dillinger. And it is desperation which makes Hoover bend the law in order to win his ‘war on crime’ (a theme reminiscent of today’s ‘war on terror’).
It’s nothing new, of course. The Bible is full of such desperate men and women (David was not exactly thinking straight with Bathsheba). Yet even now, in these tough times, those stories act as a reminder to be wary of easy solutions, abusing power and letting desperation dictate your decisions.