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Truth in the cross-fire

How authentic is '44 Minutes,' an FX movie about the 1997 North Hollywood shootout? It all depends on your perspective.

June 01, 2003|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

Who could forget those images: outgunned Los Ange- les police officers exchanging fire with two heavily armed and armored gunmen. It was Feb. 28, 1997. It was on TV, but it wasn't a movie or a cops-and-robbers show. Instead, it was a botched bank-robbery-turned-gun-battle on the streets of North Hollywood.

The masked gunmen blasted automatic weapons at anyone who moved, even shooting at news helicopters overhead. Detectives, without bulletproof vests, commandeered a delivery truck to scoop up injured officers and bystanders. The terror lasted all day as police searched for a possible third or fourth suspect. One officer, among the first shot by the robbers, stood shaking, wearing one shoe and shredded nylons; it was her first week back from maternity leave. The whole day was frantic, chaotic, disorienting.

Now comes another TV version of the violent North Hollywood bank robbery. "44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout," tonight on cable's FX network, is a mix of fact and fiction about that terrifying day when two bank robbers held up the Bank of America on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and then engaged police in a lengthy gunfight.

Police, arriving from many parts of the city, quickly closed streets and freeway ramps, and locked down schools and offices throughout the day and evening. Los Angeles Police Department officials set up a command post inside a furniture store, where they had access to desks and telephones. At one point, some officers borrowed guns and ammunition from a North Hollywood gun shop: heavier artillery to better compete with their opponents. The robbers eventually left the front of the bank and entered a residential neighborhood, where the shooting continued.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
La Habra -- An article in the June 1 Sunday Calendar about FX's movie "44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout" incorrectly referred to La Habra as being located in Los Angeles County. It is in Orange County.

In the end, both robbers died, one killed by his own bullet, the other by the LAPD. Amazingly, no police or civilians were killed; 10 officers and four bystanders were shot.

For the Police Department, the North Hollywood shootout was a shining moment. Just five years earlier, Los Angeles had seen its police seemingly flee from violence during the riots following the verdicts in the beating of Rodney King. News helicopters had shown unforgettable images: truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten at Florence and Normandie avenues. No police were in sight; the beating appeared to go on and on.

In the North Hollywood footage, viewers saw officers streaming toward gunfire, firing their 9-millimeter handguns at men with AK-47 assault rifles.

What redeemed the LAPD that day was sheer willpower over firepower. Guts over guns.

Truth and a good story

It's ironic -- though, given TV history, hardly surprising -- that television made it real the first time, but makes these events so unreal this time around.

Whether the topic is as profound as the rise of Hitler, or as specific as the kidnapping of a child, the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking and the constrictions of TV make it all but impossible to tell such a story accurately and in context. The aim of the studios and the networks is to entertain large audiences. Fact-based stories almost always have nuances, subtleties and other plot lines that don't survive the transition to a two-hour movie.

Consequently, this film about an unforgettable day has been largely turned into an unexceptional cop show.

And as is often the case with fact-based films, the ones who complain the loudest often are those who witnessed the actual event. That seems to be the case this time.

At my request, two officers who held key roles that day viewed "44 Minutes" and offered their analysis. Sgt. Larry "Dean" Haynes, injured in the shoulder and leg, was among the first group of officers outside the bank. Haynes immediately began sending out reports on his radio and engaged the gunmen in heavy fire. The other was the incident commander, the officer who made tactical and other crucial decisions. He has since left the department and asked that his name not be used.

Both were disappointed in the movie version of the event.

"I just thought the real thing would have been an interesting story on its own without the artistic license," Haynes said. "If I was grading it on authenticity, I'd give it an F."

Haynes said he was annoyed, for example, that the filmmakers took shortcuts: They combined officers with important roles into single characters and they added others who weren't as involved, he said.

The incident commander said he was disappointed that the patrol officers, the first to arrive at the bank, weren't the stars of the movie. Instead, they're shown to be secondary players in the gunfight.

Shooting and its aftermath

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