Scott Ellington's Blog

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Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s commentary for this film is the definitive example of authorial intent exceeding the elastic limitations of the cinematic medium.  Public Enemies is an excellent film, but the commentary tenders layers of context that did not (probably could not) be brought to the viewer’s attention within the 2hour limitation and the cost constraints of the film.  Delivered by an expert filmmaker whose phenomenal familiarity with the material presented is nearly unsurpassed makes for magical depths of association and knocked me on my ass.  It didn’t hurt to find that Mann’s encyclopedic creative sensibilities pulled meaningful parallel speculations out of plausible places.

A drunk midwestern, middleclass kid robs a grocery store for $50 in 1923.  He’s sent to prison for 10 years, leaving it with a graduate degree in bank robbery courtesy of a mentor named Walter Pierpont who imbues the kid with a kind of sophisticated, methodical, rigorously military discipline that will elevate the student to the exalted national status of Public Enemy Number One for the 13 months of freedom on which the movie concentrates.  And yet the day of the independent career bank robber (just like Butch and Sundance) is absolutely done, not only because J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation says so, but because the end of prohibition means that the smartest elements of organized crime have moved beyond their ususal suspect activities (like harboring the high-profile gangs of independent bank robbers) to various forms of low-profile legitimate corporate criminality.  So the extra-ordinary audacity and public relations acumen embodied in the Dillinger organization is threated in its prime from both sides, leading directly to an historic outcome that’s related in a film about it 70 years after the fact and lovingly mirrored in the gangster movies Dillinger loves to watch…one of which makes it into Mann’s movie.

It crossed my mind as Mann described Hoover’s appointed Dillinger-ender, Melvin Purvis, that that very Southern gentleman’s Gman career and cultural tradition were profoundly mismatched, especially in context of Hoover’s mandate to get Dillinger by any means necessary.  While the film and commentary go so far as to strongly suggest that Purvis’ misgivings about the job and its executive director (later in the film) prevent him from doing the job to the fullest extent of his native ability, I’d like to go a step farther.

The threat Dillinger posed to national security justified Hoover’s strategies; arrest the target’s relatives for indeterminate periods of unlawful detention while subjecting those persons of interest to cruel and unusual forms of interrogation and exercise whatever forms of information gathering and monitoring of American citizens may be deemed necessary to achieve the agency’s goals.  So the movie was an interesting biopic about the end of Public Enemy Dillinger, but the realer public enemies were Hoover and Purvis.  And, thinking back, it seems that a remarkable variety of threats to national security are cited fairly continuously as ample justifications for extra-legal activity by heroic SuperPatriots who turn out increasingly swiftly to be incredibly slimy scoundrels.

I’d like to see Purvis and Dillinger team up to rid the world of Hoover, McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Rumsfeld, Bush, the FOX News Team and Bush…Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and whoa.

Maybe that’ll be Luck.

And nobody contextualizes network neutrality (and cocksuckers) as clearly as Tim Wu, in my experience:

Crudely paraphrased:  Google’s approach to wireless internet is like America’s approach to the imposition of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq; noble-sounding motives devolve into unlawful detention and torture.

25 Sep 10 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Scott,

    First, it is great to find your writing again. You commented on a number of my photos (Leila) at Photosig back in the mid 2000s. Your critiques, insights and writing were always gifts to read due to your art of using words and phrases. You elevated the written language through your comments.

    As for the topic of Dillinger, I find it relates to one of the lessons presented in Orwell’s 1984. You must give the populace an enemy without a face (hard to define and impossible to truly capture) that diverts attention away from true agendas and pogroms. Bush Jr. and the neocons found this perfect enemy with al quaeda. Through it, they could maximize profits and limit liberties while claiming national security and patriotic duty to defend their actions.

    Anyway, good to read your writing again.

    Comment by Karl | 07 Oct 10 | Reply

    • Hi Karl!
      It looks like I’ve lots of reading to do at Photo Fermata and Hear Me Roar. Thanks for reconnecting, in every sense of the term.
      Mann says clearly in the commentary that Dillinger’s practices, intent and aptitude for public relations captured the popular imagination FAR more effectively than did Hoover and Hoover’s ideal of bland, collegiate, conscience-less G-Men.
      Perhaps only the names change, while the fundamental agendas persist.
      My turn to come visiting!

      Comment by Scott Ellington | 07 Oct 10 | Reply

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