Thursday, July 16, 2009

Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough

I wrote the following statement before I saw the movie, but nevertheless, at that time I naively believed my uneducated opinion to be true:

The book is better.

Now I’ve seen the movie and I must, to be honest and fair, revise the previous statement. It now reads:

Why even try? I mean really! To say “the book is better” is like saying “Dillinger robbed banks.” No kidding. The movie is to the book like your little brother’s piggy bank is to the Federal Reserve. Which one gives gangsters the bigger reward?

Yeah, that’s a bit more accurate.

I've been planning on seeing Public Enemies ever since it was announced the John Dillinger movie would be filmed in Wisconsin, and historical sites, including one in my hometown, were scouted as possible locations. Then late last summer I had breakfast at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish, Wisconsin, site of a bungled FBI raid on Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and others. Before my biscuits and gravy arrived, I read the brief history of the lodge and the failed raid printed on my placemat.

But now I’ve read the book, which includes a bit more information than the placemat, and it is phenomenal. Painstakingly researched by author Bryan Burrough and incredibly detailed, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 is much more than another John Dillinger story. Readers learn the truth about numerous criminals of the time. For example:

Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd gained national notoriety due to media speculation after the Kansas City Massacre, a crime he didn’t commit, and by spring of 1933 he had “withdrawn from bank robbing altogether, preferring to spend his days baking pies in his cousins’ kitchens.” (He didn’t, of course, retire as a baker.)

Bonnie and Clyde were far from the glamorized characters portrayed by Hollywood. Their crimes were small compared to their contemporaries – one bank robbery earned them only $80, another attempted job was on a bank that had been closed for weeks. Bonnie nearly died in a car accident, and as they became more notorious, “they gave up bathing and normal hygiene. Their clothes were dirty. They smelled.” Hardly glamorous.

Ma Barker, portrayed by J. Edgar Hoover as the criminal mastermind of the Barker Gang, was more interested in jigsaw puzzles than crime. (But died from an FBI bullet to the head nevertheless.)

George F. Barnes was a dreamer and a joker, a nervous man who sometimes vomited before bank jobs. He and his wife were behind the kidnapping of Charles Urschel and the $200,000 ransom, but he missed the first cash drop, probably because he flooded his car. The most impressive part of his legacy may be his nickname: Machine Gun Kelly.

It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. Public Enemies shows that truth can be better than fiction. Hollywood would be hard pressed to concoct a cast of characters with stories as interesting and intertwined as those on both sides of the 1933-1934 War on Crime. In fact, even when Hollywood is presented with a golden story in an open vault, it still makes off with only a buck-two-eighty. (For more thoughts on the movie, click here.)

Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 is not to be missed. While the movie includes plenty of high speed chases and shoot-em-ups, the book explains how they managed to rob banks, as Dillinger once said, in “one minute, forty seconds. Flat.” It explains how the gangs were able to repeatedly evade the law, and especially how the FBI, just a fledgling organization being created on the fly to fight the War on Crime, often times made it easier for the gangs to remain free. Public Enemies is an eye-opening view through the bars of a life of crime and into the offices of the men trying to fight it.

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