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An American Legend (Public Enemies Review)

I went to see Public Enemies at a matinee showing, and it was discounted on top of that, so I figured if I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t cost me much. :)

I had heard reviews both good and bad, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was almost a tabula rasa, trying not to let reviews influence me when I took my seat in the theater.



I did see a preview for a movie about ordinary folks needing money lending their farm to the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in the summer of ’69. The reviews will probably skewer it but the preview was amusing. :)

Okay, let’s start with Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin Purvis: first, the looks. He’s his gorgeous self, gals ‘n’ pals, even with the ‘30’s-style haircut. He wears the period suits wonderfully: blue, light-gray, white! He’s pretty, folks.

His performance? Understated. Some critics seem to perceive that as ‘wooden’ or ‘mailing it in’. I say it was the persona of a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who also was working in the nascent FBI tracking down hardened criminals which required shoot-outs and other brutalities. He rarely spoke about his cases to the media, and was described as a ‘clam personified’.

Christian was in a supporting role. He was not given any scenes with anyone outside of the FBI, no friends or family. He was shown within the context of the job, and showed powerful emotions when friends and colleagues were killed, and frustration over botched operations, but he wasn’t kicking and screaming.

I’m one of those people who liked the understated performance of Christian in The Dark Knight, feeling that it was the proper choice because otherwise with Heath’s bombastic performance as the Joker, it could have become a one-upmanship disaster that we saw in Batman Forever between Jim Carrey (The Riddler) and Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face) if Christian hadn’t played it that way. Same here with a story about the flamboyant Dillinger.

I’m also one of those people who liked the understated performance of Brandon Routh as Superman in Superman Returns, figuring that any guy in solitary spaceflight for five years and training at the Fortress of Solitude for a dozen years before that could be somewhat detached.

I was particularly impressed with Christian's scene with Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Dillinger's girlfriend. Very powerful.

I also liked his face-to-face scene with Johnny Depp. Johnny Dillinger was reading Melvin Purvis well, I think, when you consider that hesitation of Purvis' when Johnny drawled that he needed to find a different occupation. Maybe the brutalities were getting to him?

BTW, for slash fans, this scene has oodles of UST and slashy dialogue, which has probably helped launch the slash part of the fandom. ;)

He was the finest of the Bureau's agents and his career would be destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover out of jealousy over the publicity he was getting.

So, I thought Christian’s quiet performance punctuated with passion at the right times was a good one.

He also showed off his talent for accents, especially American ones.

Could the film have delved more into psychological reasons for what the characters did? John Dillinger mentioned being beaten every day by his father. Did we need to see flashbacks to that? No. If you understand the era of the early Depression ‘30s, people were living drab, pinched lives as their life savings were gone, their jobs reduced or gone, their homes gone or in disrepair. The bankers were blamed, and the upper classes (Wall Street). It’s ironic that the upper classes considered FDR a ‘traitor to his class’ when his efforts probably helped save capitalism in the end.

Johnny Dillinger robbing banks with style and flair, even telling an ordinary customer to keep his money, he was there for the bank’s money, made him a folk hero. His gang killed during the course of their crime spree, but when he took hostages, he left them unharmed and out in the country as he and his gang made their getaway down the dusty roads. Does that mean he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer? No, but scenarios like this endeared him to a Depression-weary public.

John Dillinger was an independent. The syndicate, led by Frank Nitti in Chicago (Capone’s second-in-command, in charge while Al did time for tax evasion), didn’t like the attention Dillinger was getting from the Government. They liked to stay low-key and organized, while Johnny never planned more than the next job. He was dash and style and the reporters enjoyed talking to him. He always gave them colorful copy.

Bank robbers in the early ‘30s were like the James Gang in the 19th century: they robbed the rich railroads and the Dillinger Gang robbed the banks and bankers. People thrilled to their exploits, because they were stuck in drab jobs that forced them to work over forty hours a week for low pay, with no vacations and health care and if you got hurt on the job, tough luck. When banks had failed in 1929, there was no FDIC, at least until 1933. There was no Social Security until 1935. Unemployment insurance? Ha! There wouldn’t even be Medicaid until 1965, and that was bitterly fought by conservatives every step of the way.

The cult of American celebrity had begun in the 19th century with theater actors and actresses. Even though there were segments of society that scorned and despised the theater, considering it immoral, there were stage door groupies, too. :) And the newspapers glorified adventurers like Nellie Bly and Stanley Livingston and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, charging up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. A generation learned to venerate Civil War heroes, and the gunslingers and cowboys of the Wild West. Dime novels sold like hotcakes.

By the 1930s movies had blossomed the cult, and better technology helped spread it via Movietone News and the radio. Johnny Dillinger was perfect for the time.

He was bold 'n' brassy, walking right into the Chicago Police Department Headquarters and into the John Dillinger Squad Room, the agents distracted by an afternoon baseball game while he wanders around and sees the pictures and other evidence the special task force has set up.

The movie itself showed the period off very well in the clothes, cars, and music.

I liked the touches of humor. Johnny Dillinger knew how to turn a phrase, and the scene in the movie theater with J. Edgar on the screen telling everyone in the audience to turn to their right and left and see if they could spot the Dillinger gang was amusing with all the heads turning and the gang sitting right there, but no one recognized them! :)

Was the film true all the way through? Some of the facts were Dillinger’s bank robberies, his relationship with Billie Frechette, the FBI’s appointment of Purvis to get him (and Hoover's glory-grabbing), and Purvis killing Pretty Boy Floyd and in charge of the men outside the Biograph Theater the night John Dillinger died. Who knows about the rest? You know Hollywood. ;)

It seems very American for an American legend to go to a movie about gangsters and get gunned down outside the theater when he’s coming out. There was no Lady in Red, exactly…she wore a white blouse and orange skirt, and was a madam being blackmailed by the Government to set Dillinger up or be deported back to Romania. I can't imagine how she felt during that two-hour movie and knowing what was going to happen when she left the theater with Johnny and the other girl. I doubt she enjoyed the film very much!

It’s a miracle anyone ever caught anyone in those days without more technology. It was tough to coordinate a bust with hand signals and split-second timing, and there was a lot of open space to hide in throughout the Midwest. The U.S. wouldn’t even reach 130 million people until World War II. There were cars instead of horses but the roads were often impassable, a national system of highways connecting the country not built until the 1950s, with very crude highways connecting only parts here and there in Dillinger’s time.

J. Edgar Hoover’s ambition was shown briefly as he tried to build up the Bureau with ‘young men of the right sort’. He knew that modern methods (fingerprinting, wiretapping, etc.) would catch gangsters, but he was a glory hound and would turn into a dictator with files on everyone powerful in and out of Government in the ensuing decades. Though I’m sure he appreciated such a pretty agent as Melvin Purvis. ;)

I liked the complexity of some of the characters. It wasn’t all black-and-white with Purvis or Dillinger. There were small kindnesses shown, even from hardboiled agents or gangsters. Some were exactly what they seemed, and some had nuances to them.





So, here are my recommendations as to whether or not to see this movie:

If you’re a Christian Bale fan, you will love him in the clothes. Sorry, he never gets out of them. ;) He has a supporting role so isn’t in the film as often as Johnny Depp, but he was in it more than I expected. The lighting does him justice, and especially highlights his beautiful eyes in certain scenes. Hands are very yummily noticeable, too, not to mention other, um, assets. ;)

If you want to enjoy his beauty, go, but if you don’t like understated performances, perhaps this movie is not for you, Christian fan or not.

The violence wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact, it wasn’t much worse than you would see on a Law & Order episode. I’d bet that the final scene in the ‘67 flick Bonnie & Clyde was bloodier.

If you love period pieces, this is a good film. If you have no interest, then you probably won’t like it.

If you know about John Dillinger’s story or want to learn more, this is a film that I would recommend.

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Tags: christian bale, johnny depp, movies, public enemies, review
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