Eminentoes

Depp Out of His Depth

With Public Enemies, which opens today, Hollywoods adds to its legend as a gangsters' paradise.

By 7.1.09

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Today, the latest Hollywood film to glorify criminality opens. In Public Enemies, Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, and to hear Depp tell it, Dillinger was no bad guy at all, but a genuine American hero.

"The title of the film is 'Public Enemies,' but I don't see John Dillinger as an enemy of the public," Depp told the Los Angeles Times. He noted that J. Edgar Hoover was the man who sent federal agents after Dillinger, and remarked, "I mean, who's the real criminal?"

Well, Hoover had plenty of faults, but running a gang that murdered law enforcement officers and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars wasn't one of them. But to Depp, the bank robbing at gunpoint was a Dillinger virtue.

On The Late Show with David Letterman last week, Depp lauded Dillinger as an American Robin Hood. He made the point, which is also made in the film's trailer, that Dillinger robbed only from the banks, never from the people.

Apparently Johnny Depp, one of the greatest actors of our time, has never seen It's a Wonderful Life, one of the great films of all time. It's a Wonderful Life teaches us that the money held in banks belongs to the people. When Uncle Billy lost the Baily Building and Loan's deposit, thus creating the panic that leads George Bailey to his fateful decision on the bridge, Depp never seems to have noticed where Uncle Billy was. He was in a bank.

Yes, it was the evil Mr. Potter's bank. But that's where the Bailey Building and Loan deposited its money. Had John Dillinger robbed Mr. Potter's bank of all its cash, where would the Bailey Building and Loan have been then?  Broke, unless Mr. Potter had insurance against bank robberies. If he didn't, and Dillinger wiped out the bank, the Bailey Building and Loan would be out its money. Some folk hero.

Johnny Depp and the film's writers and producers seem to think that banks own the money in their vaults. But of course, as Jimmy Stewart taught us, they don't. That money belongs to the people who deposited it. It's invested, it earns interest while doing good things like building homes, and some of that interest is returned to the depositors, aka, the people.

The sheer economic ignorance of this portrayal of Dillinger as Robin Hood is eclipsed only by the foolishness of asserting that Dillinger was heroic because, as Depp told the Times, "People at certain points just had to take up arms, did they not?"

Yes, the answer to the Depression was to rob banks. Brilliance on stilts. The problem with banks in the Great Depression was that they had too little money to lend, and Depp's solution was to send marauding gangsters around the country to take what was left and spend it on fast cars and fast women.

And according to Depp, Dillinger is an OK guy because not only did he heroically redistribute wealth from the banks to the car dealers, liquor stores and prostitutes of greater Indiana and Illinois, but he might not have killed anyone in the process. Although Depp admits that Dillinger "fired weapons at" people, he says no one can prove the great man actually killed anyone. Perhaps not. But the FBI can show that the gang Dillinger led murdered 10 men and wounded seven others.

Dillinger's gang broke him out of prison by shooting a sheriff and leaving him to die on the jail house floor not far from his wife, whom the gang had locked in a cell. Dillinger, who had to walk past the expiring sheriff, wasn't troubled by the killing. Maybe sheriffs, like bankers, aren't of "the people," and therefore deserve what's coming to them.

In the film, Dillinger is dramatically told that he can't escape from a jail in which he's being locked up. Depp's Dillinger says, "Well, we'll see about that." Later, he heroically escapes. Dillinger was put in that jail to await trial for the murder of an East Chicago, Indiana police officer. Someone in Dillinger's gang shot and killed the officer during a bank robbery. It might have been Dillinger. That killing followed the Dillinger gang's murder of a police detective in Chicago.

In addition to killing sheriffs and police officers, Dillinger's gang regularly took hostages and couldn't have cared less if they lived or died. They opened fire against law enforcement officers with hostages in tow several times.

Legend has it that Dillinger was given up to the FBI by, as John Cusack hilariously says in High Fidelity, "his girlfriend!" His actual girlfriend had already been arrested. The woman who gave up Dillinger was a prostitute, Anna Sage, the former madam of Polly Hamilton, a waitress and prostitute whom Dillinger had picked up and was seeing.

Here was a man who stole the people's money from the bankers who were trying, during the Depression, to invest it in economically stimulative activities, led a gang that murdered law enforcement officers without a second thought, and to top it all off was cavorting with prostitutes. And for all that he is gloriously portrayed by one of our time's best actors, who tells all the world that the character he plays is no criminal at all, but a hero of the people.

Sure, John Dillinger's life is top-notch movie material. But can't we for once do a film about gangsters without glorifying their murderous thievery? OK, twice. There was  The Untouchables. The mind marvels at how many gangster glorification films there are and how few films tell the stories of the men and women who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to protect the public from the psychopaths and murderers Hollywood so often treats as heroes.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.