Public Enemies (2009)

Rated: R for gangster violence and some language.
Length: 140 minutes
Grade: BFCC=C+
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $206 million (97 U.S., 109 Intl.)

Written by: Ronan Bennet (No credits you’d know), Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Ali, The Insider, Heat, and Last of the Mohicans), and Ann Biderman (Primal Fear and Copycat), based on the book by Bryan Burrough
Directed by: Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral, Ali, The Insider, Heat, Last of the Mohicans)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Rory Cochrane, Johnny Lang, and David Wenham.

Without claiming to be “based on a true story,” this fictionalized reorganization of the life of John Dillinger tells both his biography and also the origins of the FBI and the advent of modern crime-fighting tactics.

Entertainment Value: B
Depp, of course, is fantastic. Bale, of course, is fantastic. And I can’t quite tell you why I don’t give it an A, other than that I found myself having trouble figuring out how much of this was accurate and how much not. Turns out that lots of it was not correct, although not enough to say this was ridiculous either. Dillinger actually died before most of the people in the movie, who were shown being killed earlier than he, for instance. He never met Purvis, he never uttered final words, and even the events between Hoover, the Senate, and the “war on crime” are all out of order historically. But I only learned of this afterward. Maybe it’s just hard to watch a movie which is neither particularly condemning the cop-killing criminals nor endorsing them either. Good as it was, there was a sort of clinical detachedness to it. But still, certainly good.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C+, Violence F, Language C
I was surprised the MPAA didn’t mention sexuality in the rating. It’s certainly not excessive, but there is a fair amount of sex-related discussion, there is one rather extended sex scene (with no nudity), and one scene with a woman in a bath (again without nudity). People drink alcohol and smoke fairly continually throughout the movie. Profanity is solidly in the PG-13 range, neither excessive nor mild. Naturally, the real issue here is violence, which is constant. Lots of people die from gunshot wounds, including police officers. There are violent scenes in prisons, bank robbery is shown many times with shootouts, and in one scene a woman is beaten up by police for information. This is rightly R rated.

Significant Content: C
As I alluded to above, this movie doesn’t seem to take a position on whether any of the criminal exploits in this movie are actually evil. It’s almost like an anthropologist reporting on the curious practices of a tribe of anti-social primitives who just happen to be bank robbing gangsters. Dillinger is certainly portrayed as being better than more deranged types of criminals, and Purvis is well-esteemed as a law man. However, other law men are either inept, political, or malicious. Crime which avoids actual violence will survive as a business endeavor. So what’s the lesson? Lessons seem conspicuously absent here.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Despite the historical inaccuracies, the attention to detail of character and set was fantastic. So, in that sense, the art value is high. But there seems to be very little here to discuss and think about, which undercuts the achievement in tone and style.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think Dillinger so actively pursues Billie? Is making her “his girl” about his own ego? Is it the pride of not losing at some goal he has set? Is she a trophy of some sort to him? Does it seem like real love or devotion?
~What do you make of her devotion to him? Why are women so willing to assist their criminal boyfriends?
~How did you feel about the police officer’s violent treatment of Billie?
~Why do you think people were willing to hide (harbor) Dillinger and his friends? To what degree can you comprehend the idea of a notorious band robber becoming a sort of public hero?
~Ethically, is there any distinction between robbing the bank where people’s money is held and robbing the people themselves? Keep in mind that the FDIC was created in June of 1933, which coincided perfectly with Dillinger’s 13 month spree of bank robberies. Why might someone claim it’s okay to rob a bank but not a person?
~According to the movie, Dillinger entered prison a stupid grocery store robber and emerged a hardened and capable bank robber. Do you think our prison system tends to make people into better citizens or into better criminals? If the latter, how might this be remedied?
~What do you make of the philosophical clash between the old school criminal violence of Dillinger types and the new school bookmaking operations of the syndicate? What do you think of police or officials who turn a blind eye to “victimless” crime and vice operations like bookies but do their best to stop violent crime?
~In what ways are Dillinger and Purvis similar or even the same? What, exactly, distinguishes them? Do you think that the best cops would be the best criminals and vice versa? Why?
Overall Grade: C
If you’re hoping to get a historically accurate picture of Dillinger, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re hoping to enjoy a cops and robbers movie, you’ll also probably be disappointed. But if you want a dark period drama loosely based around the bank robberies of the 1930s with some great character acting, then here you have it.

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