Is Michael Mann's Public Enemies historically accurate?

What really happened.
July 1 2009 7:38 PM

The Real John Dillinger

Is Public Enemies historically accurate?

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in the 2009 movie Public Enemies. Click image to expand.
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies

Did FBI agents shoot and kill John Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, 1934? Or was it the cops from East Chicago who fired the fatal rounds, the very officers who later received the reward money? Did the famous bank robber pull his gun at the last moment, as the feds maintained? Or were the eyewitnesses, who said they saw no weapon, telling the truth? Did he die with a mere $7 in his pocket, proof of J. Edgar Hoover's mantra that crime does not pay? Or was he wearing a very full money belt and an expensive ruby ring, as the Indiana bandit's sister claimed as long as she lived?

Much of the Dillinger story is simply unknowable. To this day, some maintain that it wasn't John Dillinger but a look-alike who died on that steamy night in Chicago. Which is why it's something of a fool's errand to ask whether Michael Mann's Public Enemies, the new movie about John Dillinger, is true-to-life. But ask I will. Did Johnny D. portray Johnnie D. accurately? Is the action flickhistorically accurate?

The surfaces look good. Cars, clothes, guns, and buildings all appear to be of the right vintage, if a little clean and shiny for the worst year of the Great Depression. Chicago's Lincoln Avenue, where Dillinger died, was well-restored to 1934, and Mann filmed the outlaw's famous breakout from the Crown Point Indiana jail in that very building, which remains remarkably unchanged.

But then a lot of details are wrong. For example, the film opens on a bright, sunny day in 1933, with Dillinger blasting his friends out of the Indiana state penitentiary. Actually, it was cool and rainy for September, few shots were fired, and Dillinger wasn't there. (He managed to get guns smuggled in, but then his buddies were on their own.)

There are also larger problems with Public Enemies. In order to show Dillinger isolated and alone by the end of the movie, his accomplices—like Baby Face Nelson and Homer Van Meter—are killed too early. (Both actually died after Dillinger.) In fact, there is generally too much killing here. Dillinger's gang is responsible for the deaths of a dozen people, but the film makes it seem like many multiples of that number. During the entire yearlong spree between the summer of 1933 and summer 1934, Dillinger himself probably murdered just one man, but in Public Enemies, he is a killing machine.

Good historical movies can't be entirely accurate (though Hollywood publicists constantly invite us to hold them to that standard, hoping that we'll mistake verisimilitude for history). This particular film had two hours to tell a story that unfolded over the course of a year and that ranged from northern Wisconsin to Daytona Beach, Fla., to Tucson, Ariz. Of course, much material had to be cut, scenes stitched together, dialogue invented, and motives simplified. But even if we lower the standard to whether Public Enemies helps us understand its subjects and their historical situation, the film falls short.

Public Enemies is so locked into its plot of a dedicated lawman (Special Agent Melvin Purvis, FBI, played by Christian Bale) pursuing a supercriminal that much is lost. We get a sense of the Bureau's methods, especially wiretaps and stakeouts, but not of how great sophistication in law-enforcement techniques went hand in hand with remarkable bungling.

At one critical moment in April 1934, for instance, officials failed to put up roadblocks around the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin, allowing the Dillinger gang to escape. This was not merely poor judgment, as Public Enemies implies. Wanting all of the credit and glory for his own organization, J. Edgar Hoover made it a policy to cooperate as little as possible with other law enforcement agencies. Lacking enough manpower of his own, Melvin Purvis could easily have asked local constabularies to guard the crossroads, but he knew that doing so meant crossing his boss.

And it is just plain wrong to have Purvis asking Hoover, as he does in the movie, to bring in several tough cops from Oklahoma and Texas to nail Dillinger. Hoover made that decision on his own because he questioned Purvis' competence. Although Purvis nominally remained in charge of the Chicago office, it was actually G-man Samuel Cowley who took the Dillinger investigation in hand during the final months and brought the Hoosier outlaw down.

Ultimately, Mann fails to capture the essence of the Dillinger story because Public Enemies is a gangster movie. The clothes the men wear, the scenes they inhabit, and the language they speak all resonate with that genre. Most of the action takes place in director Michael Mann's hometown, Chicago, and Mann again and again makes references to other gangster films. One can't look at his scenes shot in the lobby of Union Station or at the old financial district on La Salle Street and not think of The Untouchables.

In fact, Americans understood Dillinger, applauded him, and cheered for him because they saw him less as a gangster than as an outlaw—a social bandit of the Great Depression who turned his guns against the banks. Newspapermen in 1934 compared him to Jesse James, not Al Capone, and certainly not to mobster Frank Nitti, who makes strange, gratuitous appearances in Public Enemies. At one especially telling point in the movie, Purvis tells Dillinger that he is about to extradite him to Indiana. Dillinger thinks about it and says coolly, "Why? I have absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana." It's a great scene, but the spirit of it is dead wrong. Not only is it wholly made up—the two never met—but Dillinger, a scrappy heartland renegade, would never have dismissed his home state.

Whether Public Enemies is a good film or not is for others to decide. And it certainly gives us a new spin on the old Dillinger legend. But I felt much more at home in the scruffy, low-budget 1973 movie Dillinger,directed by John Milius and starring Warren Oates. That movie was certainly less showy than this latest Hollywood version, but it made me feel in my gut that I understood something of the man, his legend, and his times.

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