"A Contest of Wills"
PUBLIC ENEMIES is a very good gangster movie, but it is not an excellent one. It is more of a realistic historical drama about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. The movie’s realistic tone is not always matched by historical accuracy, however. Although parts of the movie are historically accurate, the movie changes the sequences of events in Dillinger’s criminal career to make him appear more sympathetic than he actually was.
The movie stars Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. It opens with Dillinger and his gang breaking three of their buddies out of the state penitentiary in Illinois. Although Dillinger’s criminal mentor dies during the escape, the gang soon begins robbing banks like Jesse James used to rob trains.
In Chicago, Dillinger’s base of operations, Dillinger woos hatcheck girl Billie Frechette, the love of his life. He makes no secret of his criminal avocation, but Billie falls for his charms anyway.
Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, is concerned about the Robin Hood reputation Dillinger seems to cultivate. For example, Dillinger makes it a point not to take the bank customers’ money. This helps him build a following among the people, who have grown to hate the bankers. Hoover names Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1 and promotes handsome Agent Melvin Purvis to snare Dillinger.
This begins a contest of wills as Purvis and his men risk their lives, and the lives of innocent civilians, to bring Dillinger and his gang to justice. Dillinger and his cohorts, who include the psychopathic killer Baby Face Nelson, prove to be more elusive than anyone imagined.
Some may be disappointed that PUBLIC ENEMIES does not have the raw energy of some of the better-made gangster movies, such as James Cagney’s movies during the 1930s or even BONNIE & CLYDE. The filmmakers seem to be aiming for a more realistic portrayal. Even so, this makes the movie seem too subdued.
Also, the movie changes around some of the events in Dillinger’s life to make him appear more sympathetic. For example, though he helped plan the escape that opens the movie, Dillinger was already in jail in Ohio when it took place. After his buddies escaped from the state pen, killing two guards, three of them helped spring Dillinger out of the Ohio jail, killing the sheriff in the process. Thus, Dillinger and his gang were already responsible for killing three people by the time he returns in the movie to Chicago and meets Billie (in actuality, Dillinger apparently had met Billie sometime before he was arrested in Ohio, or so the real story goes).
The movie also changes the timelines involving the deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. It shows Purvis killing Floyd before he starts chasing Dillinger, and Purvis killing Nelson during a famous shootout with the Dillinger gang in Wisconsin. In reality, Purvis did not lead the final hunt and killing of Floyd until after Dillinger was dead, and he had nothing to do whatsoever in the death of Nelson, who was killed in a shootout with four other FBI agents a month after Floyd died.
PUBLIC ENEMIES depicts J. Edgar Hoover as an ambitious, publicity-seeking bureaucrat. He tells Purvis to use harsher methods when Purvis tells him, after a couple unsuccessful run-ins with Dillinger and his gang, that the FBI agents are no match for such hardened criminals. Eventually, apparently, Hoover decided to force Purvis out of the FBI after Purvis was publicly extolled for getting Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, and leading the manhunt that eventually got Baby Face Nelson.
All of that aside, the movie accurately depicts Dillinger releasing the hostages he sometimes took during his bank robberies. It also accurately shows that Purvis did not really fire the shot that killed Dillinger. It also shows truthfully that Purvis and his men accidentally killed two civilians when they had surrounded a Wisconsin resort where Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and the gang had holed up.
In the end, PUBLIC ENEMIES depicts Dillinger as more sympathetic than he was, and depicts Melvin Purvis more accurately as a policeman with some flaws (there is an allegation elsewhere [not in the movie] that Purvis ordered an officer to kill Pretty Boy Floyd after Floyd had been only wounded severely in a shootout). Ultimately, the movie relishes Dillinger’s rebellion while honoring the integrity, caring and determination that Purvis brought to his job. The movie implies, however, that Purvis became tormented by the fact that Dillinger was shot dead rather than arrested.
The violence in PUBLIC ENEMIES is not as bloody and graphic as it could have been. Also, there is minimal foul language, only a flash of nudity in one scene and only implied sexual relations between the gangsters and their women. Still, the movie is appropriately rated R, so extreme caution is advised.
(PaPa, RoRo, BB, RH, LL, VVV, S, NN, AA, D, MM) Mixed pagan worldview depicting the Romantic rebellion of a criminal in a positive light but also showing an FBI agent in mostly a positive light, with some revisionist history making a true-life criminal appear more sympathetic and showing that the criminal ran afoul of both Big Crime (in the form of the Mafia) and Big Government; about 13 obscenities (including two or three “f” words) and seven strong profanities; very strong violence with some blood includes many shootouts, shooting during bank robberies and a prison break, people threatened with guns, robber hits bank manager in head with gun, two civilians accidentally killed by FBI agents, guards and police officers shot, machine gun fire, bank robbers shot to death, escaping convicts shot to death; implied fornication in one scene, bank robbers have women in their rooms, kissing, references to prostitution, and naked girlfriend in tub seductively invites criminal boyfriend to share tub but police invade hotel room and arrest him before anything more happens; distant flash of upper female nudity with woman in bathtub and brief upper male nudity; alcohol use and slight drunkenness; smoking; and, stealing, bank robbery, evading and shooting at authorities and FBI agents, bank robbers take hostages and let them go, FBI agents accidentally kill two civilians, organized crime theme, rebellion extolled.
PUBLIC ENEMIES stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and the FBI agent who led the manhunt against him. As Dillinger begins his crime spree, he woos Billie Frechette, a Wisconsin woman living in Chicago. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover grows concerned about Dillinger’s Robin Hood reputation. He names Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1 and appoints handsome Agent Melvin Purvis to snare Dillinger. This begins a contest of wills between the charismatic Dillinger and Purvis. Dillinger and his cohorts, including the psychopathic killer Baby Face Nelson, are more elusive than anyone imagined.
PUBLIC ENEMIES is a realistic portrayal of characters and events rather than a freewheeling gangster movie like those during Hollywood’s Golden Age. It changes some events to make Dillinger seem more sympathetic than he was. Ultimately, the movie relishes Dillinger’s rebellion but sometimes honors the basic integrity, caring and determination of Purvis. The violence in PUBLIC ENEMIES is not as bloody and graphic as one might expect. However, there is some strong foul language, brief nudity in one scene and implied sexual relations between the gangsters and their women. Thus, extreme caution is advised.