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Commentary | COLUMN RIGHT/ JOHN J. PITNEY Jr.

Clinton the Movie Mogul: Untouchable

Who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? A new look at Al Capone and Eliot Ness.

September 29, 1998|JOHN J. PITNEY Jr. | John J. Pitney Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. E-mail: jpitney@mckenna.edu

According to published rumors, President Clinton will work for a major studio once he leaves office. It's easy to foresee his first memo:

To: The Chief of Production

From: Handsome

I have a vision for the hit picture that will be our bridge to the 21st century: a remake of "The Untouchables." Yes, I know that the 1987 version won raves, but it got the story upside-down. Eliot Ness as the good guy? Come on, the Ness character is a priggish, overzealous investigator--just like you-know-who.

Al Capone is the real hero--a man from humble origins who grew Chicago's economy by creating jobs for brewers and funeral directors. So here's how we'd do the movie the right way. It opens in 1929 with a Capone press conference. Obsessed with the salacious scandals, reporters harass him with questions about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

"It depends upon what the meaning of the phrase 'shoot to kill' is," he says patiently. "Yes, my employees were firing machine guns at a brick wall, and these seven gentlemen were standing in the way. But this does not fall within the definition of 'shooting,' as I understand it."

Dazzled by his logic, the reporters slink away. Cut to Ness, listening on the radio. "Curses, foiled again!" he shouts while pummeling his grandmother with a rolled-up religious tract. "In the name of Prohibition and the vast right-wing conspiracy, I will get you!"

Next comes a montage of scenes where federal agents break down doors and seize innocent gifts such as decorative brass knuckles. Voiceover: "Ness and his henchmen spent two years and millions of dollars zeroing in on anybody with negative information about Capone. A murder here, a murder there; they found nothing but old news. But then came a stab in the back." Ominous music. We cut to The Bookkeeper--a woman of a certain age--handing a ledger to Ness.

Dissolve to Capone and his wife walking into the federal courthouse while spokesperson Frank Nitti reads a statement. "Mr. Ness came up dry in his Valentine-gate investigation, so he just dredged up this nonsense about income-tax evasion." A long trial sequence follows, climaxed by Capone's surprise testimony.

"Isn't it true, Mr. Capone," says the snarling prosecutor, "that the bodies of your enemies end up floating in Lake Michigan?"

Capone clenches his jaw. "Sir, that just proves the need for more effective water pollution control."

Seeing that he is losing the jury, the prosecutor takes his best shot. "Did you not make $3 million from bootlegging, gambling and murder-for-hire, without paying a penny in income tax?"

"Let's not get bogged down in details," Capone replies firmly. Then bites his lip. "I have committed sins in my life, and they have caused me great pain. But not as much pain as this investigation has caused my family. It's time to move on. Enough! "

The jurors nod at one another, and the foreman leaps to his feet to proclaim Capone not guilty. The spectators cheer. Bailiffs restrain Ness while his head spins around and pea soup spews from his mouth. Capone hugs his wife and lights a cigar. Fade to black.

OK, my recollection of these events differs somewhat from the history books. But this version contains what I consider to be the essential truth. Anyway, I have an idea for a boffo epilogue. After the courtroom sequence, we see a title that reads "1986." Cut to a re-creation of Geraldo Rivera's show about the opening of Capone's vault. (Geraldo's been an extra-special pal, so we can get him to play himself.) After Geraldo lists all of the schools and churches named after Capone, he opens the vault. Nothing inside--except the cigar.

Geraldo holds it for a moment and says, "It's the sacred relic of a truly great man. I wish he were here. I want to hug him!"

Fadeout.

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