Public Enemies is a 2009 historical drama/thriller film that tells the story of the Bureau of Investigation’s manhunt for Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger. In this episode I examine the film, the politics of crime and the romanticising of criminals. I explore these themes in light of FBI documents on how they supported the movie and influenced the script, including making changes to protect the reputation of the long-dead chief of the Bureau, J Edgar Hoover.
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One of the great things about filing hundreds of FOIA requests and reading almost everything that is published on the entertainment liaison offices is that you discover movies you never would have heard of or watched otherwise. Public Enemies is one such movie.
I first came across this movie in an FBI database of requests from the entertainment industry, part of a tranche of documents from the FBI’s entertainment liaison office released to Jason Leopold. I followed up on this release and requested documents on over a dozen different films where this database says they either reviewed the script and/or made changes. That’s how I got the files detailing the 30 scenes in the Robert Redford movie The Company You Keep that were rewritten by the FBI.
Recently, with the government shutdown over, the Bureau have started releasing files in response to my other requests, including on Public Enemies, so I actually sat down and watched it. The film was co-written, directed and produced by Michael Mann, a veteran of crime films and historical movies including The Kingdom, The Aviator and Heat. It stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger – a nice coincidence of initials – alongside Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who is pursuing Dillinger. It also features Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s girlfriend.
The film is based on Bryan Burroughs’ book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34, which covers a dramatic period in US history that saw the deaths of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Faced Nelson, Ma Barker and Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the ascension of the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Public Enemies was a relative success, receiving generally positive reviews and some very positive ones, and bringing in over twice its production budget.
In my opinion it is a pretty good movie. I do have some gripes, such as it being shot in digital HD format rather than on film, and I don’t like Christian Bale, but it is quite entertaining and emotive and has a pretty strong supporting cast. As a period piece it is well executed with the cars, clothes and of course Tommy Guns featuring prominently. There probably isn’t a more cinematic weapon than the Tommy Gun, which looks and sounds terrifying. Though in reality it wasn’t a great weapon, tending to buck around in the hands of the person firing it and thus not being very accurate.
I especially enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance as Dillinger, which starts out quite rigid, almost factual, but becomes much warmer as the story progresses. This is at odds with the tone of the film, which starts out quite adventurously, with the music kicking in whenever we see Dillinger escape from prison or carry out a bank heist. About halfway through the tone shifts and becomes somewhat darker and more poignant, just as we’re starting to warm to Dillinger as a man.
I’m not sure if this was deliberate, or a sign of a movie that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to be or to say. This tension exists in a lot of crime stories – between the romance of the outlaw and the need to find dramatic resolution in them being caught or killed. Put simply, we (the audience) have to like the criminal, even be impressed by their audacity and refusal to follow the rules, otherwise it is just a procedural where we’re waiting for someone we don’t like to be arrested or shot. But the morality of crime cinema, ever since the days of the Hays Production Code, is that crime doesn’t pay, that the criminal must meet his downfall in the end.
The worry, in the 1930s, the 1950s and even today is that popular culture can induce the copycat effect, i.e. people carry out real crimes in the real world because of a song, TV show, movie or video game. This is why the Production Code forbid the portrayal of people getting away with serious crimes, or precise details of how to crack a safe or otherwise commit a crime. So I find it very interesting that in more recent versions of the classic 1930s gangster genre – from The Untouchables to Public Enemies – they repeat the same cinematic morality.
Nonetheless, as I say, the general public has a fascination with high crime – mostly as a form of revenge fantasy or liberation fantasy. The idea of casting off the shackles of everyday life and just doing whatever you want regardless of consequence is something a lot of people find romantic, especially in societies where there is a huge amount of material wealth which is distributed very unevenly. There’s a reason why they keep remaking Robin Hood and people keep going to see it.
As a result there is a trend all the way through the crime genre. The Public Enemy in 1931, starring James Cagney, is essentially the same story as Scarface starring Al Pacino – the rise and fall of a gangster. This was subverted somewhat by The Sopranos, but by the time of Breaking Bad we were back to the same basic morality, the same fundaments of narrative.
This trend is partly the result of the influence of institutions such as the LAPD, the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons on Hollywood during its formative years. They helped establish the norms of the crime story, and almost everything that followed conformed to those norms.
So Public Enemies is not exceptional in this respect – it tells essentially the same story we’ve seen a hundred times before of a charismatic, intelligent criminal who ultimately gets his comeuppance. The shifting tone of the movie, and the contrast between the overall tone and Depp’s performance as Dillinger, are a consequence of this contradiction at the heart of the telling of crime stories. So whether we’re supposed to want Dillinger to succeed and thus the ending – where he is shot by federal agents outside a movie theater – is a sad one, or whether we’re supposed to see him as a dangerous man who, however exciting, is a blight on society that needs to be destroyed, is left up to the audience to decide. For what it’s worth, I’m very much in the first camp.
A lot of the reason is Depp’s performance, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but there are also several moments that I found very sympathetic. The first time we see Dillinger and his gang hold up a bank, one of the customers takes all the money out of his pocket – including small change – and puts it on a desk for Dillinger to take. Dillinger notices this, and tells him that he’s not there for the customer’s money, he’s there for the bank’s money.
This cuts to the heart of one of the reasons why we romanticise criminals – that there’s a big difference between robbing an individual and robbing an institutiton, and between robbing from the rich and robbing from the poor. A rich institution like a bank is, in capitalistic terms, a fair target. Given that capitalism systemtically reinforces the division between rich and poor, one can make a moral argument for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and if you are poor yourself then you’ve ‘giving to the poor’ by default. We all understand that our economic system isn’t fair, and robbing banks is simply one way to address that.
About halfway through the film Dillinger is arrested, though he quickly breaks out of prison and goes back to robbing banks. Amusingly – and accurately – there is an ad hoc press conference when he is delivered by the FBI to the local jail in Lake County, Indiana.
Here we get to see Dillinger being brave, funny and relatively honest. He’s potentially facing the electric chair but he’s able to make jokes and show his human side. There’s something very endearing about that.
The final moment I want to highlight for you as to why I find myself sympathising and empthasing with Dillinger is when he and some of his gang go to the cinema, and before the film is shown there’s a message about wanted fugitives, including Dillinger himself. The audience are told that the men they’re seeing pictures of on screen might be sitting in their row, and they are told to all look to their right, then to their left, to see if they recognise them. Everyone in the cinema, with the exception of Dillinger and his gang, look right and then left in unison. It’s a moment of genuine tension, as well as a clever way to show Dillinger as a man alienated from normal society, isolated, and operating on the fringes of life.
Public Enemies and the Legitimate Use of Violence
As I described way back in episode 100, according to Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, force can be used both to make laws and to preserve the authority of the law. I used the example of a city state, which uses force (by building a perimeter wall) to restrict who can enter the city and be part of the society, which is law-making, and using violence against those who attempt to destroy or climb over the wall, which is law-preserving.
Given that the story in Public Enemies, more so in the book than in the film, is one of the rise of the FBI to counter the prohibition-era rise in organised and semi-organised crime, this is very much a story of the latter, of the law using violence to preserve itself and its authority.
In order to do this, the film takes an utterly self-contradictory approach to historical accuracy. The most obvious way it does this is by portraying Dillinger as something of a gun-crazy maniac who seemingly mows down dozens of people in the course of robbing banks and escaping from prisons. In reality, Dillinger probably only killed one person in the period covered by the film, he was not the rampaging serial killer the film would have you believe.
The film messes with history in other ways – it shows Baby Faced Nelson dying in circumstances quite different to how he really died, though he was shot by federal agents and then got up and continued to fire his Tommy Gun while they shot him again, that much is real. Nelson dies before Dillinger, when in reality he died afterwards.
When it came to Dillinger’s death they even filmed it happening exactly where it really happened – outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger was shot by three federal agents, though there are contradictory reports about whether he went for his gun first, whether there was an order to surrender that he ignored, or if they just murdered him in cold blood. What is certain is that the fatal shot came from behind, through the back of his head, exiting below his right eye.
Despite this being a rather cowardly way to kill someone, Hoover wrote to the agent who apparently fired the fatal shot – Charles B Winstead – congratulating him on his ‘fearless and courageous action’ in shooting this ‘notorious desperado’. Just as a quick aside, Winstead was an interesting man who had served in the US Army in WW1, worked as a deputy sheriff before joining the Bureau, and went on to work in military intelligence in WW2. Nonetheless, it was the shooting of Dillinger that made him famous.
The killing of John Dillinger was not merely an act of law enforcement against a violent criminal, it was a statement of authority by Hoover and ultimately by the FBI. It was a statement that no individual, no matter how audacious, is more powerful than the federal government. In another sense it was a reassertion of the right of the state to legitimately use violence, and a denial of the individual’s right to legitimately use violence. I am not saying it was either right or wrong. At a time when criminals – both individuals and gangs – were in effect claiming the right to the legitimate use of violence, the state reasserted its own monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Without that, it is possible the FBI wouldn’t have come into existence and J Edgar Hoover would just be an obscure bureacract from the 1920s and 30s.
There are a few other scenes in the movie that buttress this interpretation. For example, when Dillinger busts out of prison a second time he is goaded into robbing a bank in Sioux Falls – a location familiar to fans of Fargo – alongside Baby Faced Nelson. One of Dillinger’s cohorts is shot during the escape and has to be left behind. So the Bureau’s agents proceed to torture him to try to find out where Dillinger is holed up.
This, along with the scene where an FBI agent viciously beats Dillinger’s girlfriend, are supposedly a reaction to Dillinger’s wanton violence and total lack of respect for the law. But as I said, Dillinger wasn’t a gun-toting murderer, so this whole dynamic is somewhat fabricated and fictitious. In order to make these tortures seem justified, or even necessary, the film-makers portrayed Dillinger as far more violent than he really was.
Looked at another way, it isn’t about whether the torture is justified – the torture is in itself a justification for the FBI, the violence is their means of reasserting their authority in the face of this anarchistic outlaw. I doubt that this is what Michael Mann had in mind when he directed these scenes, but in effect that’s what they are – depictions of the state intimidating those who do not submit to and respect its authority.
Indeed, I have seen it suggested that the CIA didn’t mind everyone finding out about their post-9/11 torture program because it intimidated members of Al Qaeda and other groups they were targeting. This, in turn, made it easier to flip them, make them assets or informants, and may have even put people off joining these groups in the first place.
How the FBI rewrote Public Enemies
This dynamic, whereby something arises that threatens the authority of the state and the state reasserts its authority through violence, is constant and irresolvable. In short, there is nothing either the government or the public can do to bring about a lasting truce – there will always be some kind of insurgency against centres of power, and centres of power will always use force to try to maintain their position and privilege.
For that reassertion to be successful, though, the public have to accept it and acquiesce to it. A show of force in and of itself is usually not enough, because all that does is present the public with two competing claims to legitimate violence, and many will choose the insurgent power over the established power (or choose neither). This is, of course, where propaganda comes in, and Public Enemies is no exception to this.
The FBI are mentioned a few times in the Making Of featurettes as having supported the movie but the documents from the FBI are quite astonishing in some places. They initially provided research assistance on 1930s weaponry, and an FBI historical weapons specialist served as a consultant on the movie (as did an experienced bank robber). Eventually Christian Bale and others visited the FBI’s historical center to find out more about the Melvin Pervis character and so on. The writer even requested unredacted versions of the FBI files on Dillinger, Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and others from this time.
One of their requests is especially interesting, the email reads:
Apart from setting up a network of informants, what else would have helped them? What [redacted] is specifically interested in are early wiretap methods. Who had phones in those days? How would the early FBI have tapped phones? Any specific details is what he is looking for…he wants this scene to be very authentic ….. from setting up the equipment to the retrieval of the information, how would this have worked?
The FBI’s internal email in response to this request says, ‘Please handle as we’ve been discussing’. As we know from other examples, both historical and recent, the FBI do not like being portrayed using wiretaps. In this instance there are two very brief scenes of FBI agents listening to phonecalls in the wiretap room, but there’s no explanation of how this was possible, what equipment they used.
The most interesting document they released is a fax or email from the Director’s Office to various parts of the FBI who were involved in providing support, approving both official and unofficial cooperation. It says:
This approval is made consistent with OPA mission interest in developing the public image of the FBI and ensuring an accurate portrayal of FBI personnel, past and present, in order to encourage public cooperation with the FBI in performing its mission.
This is the FBI admitting, explicitly, that they’re involved in Hollywood to get the public onside, i.e. to accept their assertion of authority. The way they went about doing this is quite clever.
However, the FBI Historian,[redacted] notes that [redacted]’s portrayal of the FBI and Director J. Edgar Hoover “heightens the image of the FBI as an agency seeking to win by whatever means necessary,” not necessarily a flattering portrayal. The Office of Public Affairs discussed the aforementioned historical variations with [redacted] while he was in the Washington, D.C. area. [redacted] indicated that the script was not finalized and that he could make changes to minimize this impression before production completed this Spring. OPA will continue to work with project managers to make sure that any historically and substantively inaccurate details are corrected—and that the motion picture producers understand our official cooperation hinges upon an accurate, although not necessarily flattering, portrayal of the FBI role in criminal investigations of the Era.
So they are still, 45 years after he died, worried about how films portray J Edgar Hoover. They also leaned on the film-maker to minimize the impression that the FBI were willing to go to any lengths to win their war on crime.
While we don’t know specifics, there are three scenes where I think changes were made to accomplish this. The first is the torture scene, where it’s one of the cowboys, the southern gunslingers the FBI bring in to help fight crime in Chicago, who tortures Dillinger’s accomplice. Purvis can’t watch, and according to the script this is when we’re supposed to see a small part of his soul die.
Another scene that I think was rewritten, this time to protect Hoover’s public image, is when Purvis asks Hoover to bring in the cowboys in the first place.
In reality it was Hoover who made this decision, whereas this film that went to absurd lengths to be authentic got this critical plot point wrong. But of course, it makes Hoover look like he was the reasonable one, saying there are limits to what the Bureau should do.
The final scene which shows signs of a rewrite is when Hoover orders Purvis to arrest all of Dillinger’s known associates and pressure them into providing information.
In several interviews Michael Mann talked about Hoover being this totalitarian who didn’t care about habeus corpus, but that’s not how he comes across in this, his most aggressive scene in the film. All he’s really doing is telling his lead investigator to bully people into giving them information, which by comparison to beating the crap out of a women or torturing a man with a bullet lodged in his skull is pretty small fry.
All of which adds up to some clever PR by the FBI. It’s the outsiders who torture people, the FBI agent Purvis is disturbed by it. It wasn’t Hoover who brought in the outsiders, it was Purvis. Hoover’s most dictatorial moment is fairly low-key, and thus both the Bureau and in particular J Edgar Hoover got their image massaged in keeping with the FBI’s wishes.
One other thing that comes up in this FBI email is that they checked the cast and crew against their own databases, and that having previously worked with Mann on The Kingdom was a factor in approving support:
OPA found no negative information concerning the production company, writer or others associated with the proposed film in FBI records or during a thorough indices check.
Now, I don’t know if this is a regular part of the process for FBI-supported productions. I’m trying to get a copy of their entire Hollywood file for the last year (they tried to charge me hundreds of dollars to get the whole thing) to find out more about how this all works. But isn’t it ironic that the FBI adopted the selfsame neurotic, bullying tactics that they diluted or removed from the script?
To conclude, I think this is a pretty good film and as a piece of entertainment I do recommend it. But I do also think it is a piece of political PR for the Bureau, and a means of generating public acceptance for the reassertion of the FBI’s authority through cinematic violence.