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'Public Enemies' No. 1 (in historical accuracy, writer says)

The author of the book upon which Michael Mann's new film starring Johnny Depp was based gives it high marks for sticking to the facts, unlike crime biopics such as 'Bonnie & Clyde.'

June 28, 2009|Bryan Burrough | Burrough, a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, is author of "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34."

Hollywood makes myths and always has, and I guess that's as it should be. Moviegoers want to be entertained, after all, so moviemakers have long burnished history to make it more entertaining. From "Birth of a Nation" all the way up to "Mississippi Burning," "The Untouchables" and the little-remembered CIA-in-Laos film "Air America," the facts of American history have marched off to battle with Hollywood myth and, sadly, at least for me, lost almost every time.

Only the stodgiest Ivy League historian will step forward these days to argue that there was really no smooth-talking Mr. Anderson who outfoxed the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. But there is something to be said for trying to give audiences some sense where the lines between history and myth are drawn. This year's big July 4 movie, "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, is just the latest film that will probably raise such questions.

The movie, directed by Michael Mann, maker of such memorable films as "Heat," "Collateral" and "Last of the Mohicans," is based on a book I wrote several years back; the movie, however, is all Mann's. While the book tells the intertwined stories of all the major Depression-era bank robbery gangs -- those of Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd, among others -- Mann has chosen to focus on the most successful of this group, Indiana-born John Dillinger, whose crime spree during 1933 and 1934 held not just the nation but much of the Western world in thrall. Depp plays Dillinger and Bale his nemesis, the FBI agent who zealously pursued him, Melvin Purvis.

Though during his life his notoriety dwarfed that of lesser peers such as Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger's fame has dimmed over the last 75 years, in part, I suspect, because he never earned a memorable nickname or spawned an Academy Award-winning movie.

Born in 1903, Dillinger was the classic nobody from nowhere, a terrible student with an abusive father who found himself at loose ends in his early 20s. He tried the Navy but went AWOL, then marriage, which didn't take. He was bumming around his hometown outside Indianapolis one fateful night in 1924 when a character from the local pool hall lured him into the drunken mugging of their grocer. A judge threw the book at poor Dillinger, who ended up doing nine years of hard prison time, mostly at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City.

There he fell in with a group of hardened bank robbers, who before his parole in May 1933 taught him how to rob a bank, gave him a list of targets and begged him to use the proceeds to break them out. Which he did, smuggling guns into the prison that enabled his pals to bust out the following September. For the next 10 months Dillinger and his new gang, later to include figures such as Baby Face Nelson, embarked on a series of criminal adventures that, in terms of their sheer outrageousness, have seldom been matched.

He was arrested twice, then staged two spectacular escapes, followed by two shootouts with the nascent FBI, including what remains the most dramatic gunfight in the Bureau's history, the infamous battle at Little Bohemia, where Dillinger managed to escape despite being encircled by two dozen FBI men at a remote pine-shrouded lodge in far northern Wisconsin.

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Star of the newsreels

What elevated Dillinger above the ranks of ordinary bank robbers was not just his derring-do but the way regular Americans cheered him on. This, after all, was the nadir of the Depression, a time when millions of people were angry at the banks and moneyed interests they felt had robbed them of their jobs and homes. In Dillinger many Midwesterners saw a charming, aw-shucks farm boy who was doing what they couldn't -- retaliating against the banks, a sentiment that more than a few Americans might share in today's scandal-plagued recession. A poll of moviegoers found Dillinger was drawing the most applause of any major American shown in newsreels, rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.

"Public Enemies" marks at least the fourth time Dillinger's story has been told in a film, beginning with Lawrence Tierney's portrayal in 1945's "Dillinger." The most memorable portrayal was probably the great Warren Oates' version in John Milius' 1973 film "Dillinger," though I'm told Mark Harmon also played the gangster at some point in recent years. I missed that one.

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