Video Essay: Justice, Vengeance, and Empty Retribution in Public Enemies

Video Essay: Justice, Vengeance, and Empty Retribution in Public Enemies August 12, 2011

The full text of this video essay’s narration follows the video.

In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), we see a clear expression of American desire for justice and retribution, cleverly hidden in the cloak of a depression-era true-crime story.  As J. Edgar Hoover announces the FBI’s “War on Crime,” we cannot help but connect the idea to our current war on terror.  Johnny Depp plays Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger, shooting up banks, using the press to his advantage, and keeping out of the law’s reach at every turn.

Unlike the American certainty about the righteousness of the hunt for Hussein or Bin Laden, viewers of Public Enemies are conflicted about Dillinger.  Dillinger benefits from some inherent likableness in the casting of Jonny Depp, and he is set up as a sympathetic, loyal, and loving character; in contrast, FBI director Hoover is bossy, pushy even, and his top “G-Man” Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) is calculated, cold, and distant.

In the end, the audience is almost rooting for the “bad guy” they know they’re supposed to dislike and even hoping that he escapes the set-up at the picture show.   Then as Dillinger is gunned down in gritty detail on the sidewalk outside the cinema, there is a fleeting sense that Justice has a victory, only to be replaced with a kind of guilt at the exulting crowd gawking over Dillinger’s body, the revelation of Dillinger’s final words of loyalty and love to Bille, and the end-title telling us that G-Man Purvis eventually takes his own life.

This clear example of empty retribution, vengeance without justice, is a clear reminder of how unsatisfying was the hanging of Saddam Hussein after the great hope of justice that his capture had brought.  Though this film was released long before the death and swift burial of Osama Bin Laden, it was a prescient perspective on the desire for true justice over tragedy and how fleeting is the satisfaction of revenge when justice is needed.   Finally, even though J. Edgar Hoover referred to Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and others as “Public Enemies,” the film’s title clearly telegraphs the idea that, at times, both the criminals and those policing them are enemies of the public.

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