Friday, April 29, 2011

The Superior Virtue of the Wicked

I was watching Public Enemies the other day on my comp, the second time after watching it at a theatre. I was mainly viewing it for the earlier talk that Depp would figure as the Riddler in the last Chris Nolan Batman movie. Fanboys like me take a special delight in watching actors who play comic characters play other characters. Allow me to explain: a fanboy once posted, “Who would win in a fight between Batman and Wolverine?” Answer: “Watch the ending of The Prestige.” Or: who would win in a fight between Jason Bourne and Bob Lee Swagger? Answer: watch the ending of The Departed.

Public Enemies is not a badly executed period crime drama at all, not by a long chalk. Depp’s Dillinger holds your attention, as does Bale’s Purvis, the action is crafted well, the human interest explored. Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover, however, is a pale figure compared to the real man, but that is not Crudup’s fault. It is the story’s. You see, if Hoover’s real nature had to be explored, it would turn some of the key elements in the movie on their head. That’s where the problems in the movie lie.

Crime thrillers, as explored in the popular media, seem to hinge on exploring the human side of various criminals. There are mainly four kinds of criminals, and in my time as a political and urban crime reporter I have met specimens of each category. They are broadly defined by what I call The Aftermath, or what they look the morning after they are arrested, interesting tableau vivants that could have walked off a Gericault oil painting.

The amateur criminal manifests in incredible brutality visited on known people, and wakes up to crime and punishment confused. The professional knows his ropes so thoroughly he no longer cares to differentiate between whether he is in custody or out. The political criminal is so keyed up about his beliefs he actually relishes his impending imprisonment, while the psychopath…well, more on him in a later blog, perhaps.

I have yet to find meaningful redeeming qualities in any of these types or specimens. Rather, their stories have been sordid replaceable, utterly commonplace plays of broad human themes just as easily, if not so dramatically, explored in our own, mostly law-abiding lives. But there must be something vicarious in the human psyche that we demand to explore the lives of criminals.

John Dillinger was no hero. He was a bank robber with flair in an era of gangsters with flair. He was a criminal in the Depression-era resurgence of lawlessness America saw. Although only directly charged with one cop killing, the bank robberies he committed saw scores of deaths. And he didn’t look like Johnny Depp or sing better than Gene Autry.

This treatment or, shall we say, revisionism of the history of crime has other examples, like Bonnie and Clyde. The couple, as Stephen Hunter points out in this brilliant article ( were no cute twosome on the run from the wicked forces that try to discipline them. They were psychopathic murderers and had to be stopped. The men who eventually stopped them were not malicious old men who envied their freedom, but people who laid their lives on the line and had friends and family too.

It is easy to find criminals an interesting character study, and perhaps proper. But it might not be just if we assigned them human elements that, in case of historical examples, were absent.

Returning to Crudup’s Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI was also insecure about his position, so he hounded Melvin Purvis out of the Bureau. Public Enemies mentions Purvis took his own life in 1960, but does not say it was because of a bad boss, somehow leading the audience to believe that while Dillinger died on his feet from another man’s (a hired man too) bullet, Purvis was an unknown suicide. Melvin Purvis was a good man. The kind that stopped a scourge. Historical depictions ought to do some things right.

P.S. The title of this post is based on Joseph Addison’s The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed, about how women and children, who were given the short straw in his time, were glorified in fiction and art.