Monday, March 15, 2010

Public Enemies -- living in the present, planning for our destination

Director: Michael Mann, 2009. (R)

If you took Heat (1995) and moved it back in time to the Great Depression you would have Public Enemies. The structure and plot are so close, and both have two actors at the height of their careers (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the former, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp in this one). But perhaps that's not surprising, since Michael Mann directed both. The main difference is that this film is based on the true story of John Dillinger (Johny Depp, Finding Neverland), the notorious bank-robber.

Set in 1933, deep into the Depression, Dillinger is a man who loves robbing banks and breaking rules. He is surrounded by friends and they crash these banks with confidence and charisma, and little fear of reprisal from the law. Indeed, Dillinger lives openly in Chicago without fear.

The police are of no use and so it is to the fledgling FBI that enforcement authorities look. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) appoints Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation) Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Office with one mission: apprehend Public Enemy number one, Johnny Dillinger. And Public Enemies is really the story of this manhunt, the chase between Purvis and Dillinger.

Mann paints these two main characters as polar opposites. Where Dillinger is a fun-chasing, risk-taking womanizer, Purvis is calculated and focused on one goal, his mission, and fun is a word missing from his vocabulary. Indeed, Purvis has but one expression throughout the film: dour, with furrowed brow and grim demeanor. Dillinger's daring is countered by Purvis' determination. Except for the fact that Dillilnger is a killer, he would seem to be the more interesting of the two. Yet, as the film progresses, the hunt has an effect on Purvis and little by little he becomes more like the man he is hunting. Removing the white kid gloves, his men engage in brutal interrogation and blackmail tactics to accomplish his goal.

Can the mission become so important that, like Purvis, we forget the journey and the means? We all have a mission or set of goals. Yet, are they that critical that we are willing to change, for the worse, to accomplish them? As Christians we have a high calling to "be holy as the Lord is holy" (Lev. 19:2). In pursuit of whatever our goal might be, we need to retain our integrity even at the expense of its success. The ends do not justify the means. We need to use legitimate ends.

Public Enemies has some excellent set pieces, as violent as they are. The prison break scenes play out well. The siege and subsequent shoot-out in a rural lodge depicts graphically the cost in shells and lives of the gangsters' lifestyle. A favorite scene shows Dillinger and accomplices waiting at a red light, freshly escaped from jail, with a police car opposite them and soldiers beside them looking in. Where other men would panic and floor the gas, Dillinger stays cool and waits out the light. What seems to take forever, as sweat runs down his neck, finally concludes with the green light.

Indeed, it is this chutzpah, this sheer cockiness that is captured most evidently by Mann. Dillinger is portrayed as a folk hero, a kind of Robin Hood. In the first bank robbery, after asking for all the money Dillinger nods to some small change on the counter, and says to the bank teller, "That's your money mister? We're here for the bank's money, not yours. Put it away." With actions like this, he wins over the public. The banks, seen as places supporting the rich, catch little support from the common man who is struggling to earn his daily bread. So popular is he, that upon his arrest crowds flock to see the police car that bears him, and he waves like a princess at the Portland Rose Parade.

Despite this apparent popularity, his arrogance is jarring, even if it is real. His willingness to walk into police stations, though being the most wanted man in America, shows sheer audacity . . . or stupidity. The fact that he gets away with it is testament to the lack of communication and watchfulness in those days. And it is this arrogance, combined with the gruffness of Purvis, that defeats the emotional connection of the audience with either man. Which is the hero? Who do we really care about and cheer for? Neither really. And the script leaves us feeling that both characters could have been more developed and hence more intriguing.

It is when Dillinger falls in love with a coat-check clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose), that we begin to see inside his mind. He describes himself to her in a 30 second bio: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you... what else you need to know?" Clearly the past has little value to him. His philosophy becomes even clearer: "We're having too good a time today. We ain't thinking about tomorrow." He is living in the present, soaking in the thrill of robbing banks, walking into police stations, sleeping with his moll.

The present is important, for sure. We can look to the past, but it is behind us, gone. We can anticipate the future, but it is only potential. The present is here and now and so very real. We can all resonate with Dillinger's feelings on this. And yet, living in the present and ignoring the past will lead us to repeat the mistakes of history. Worse perhaps is to ignore planning for the future and to focus solely on the moment. This leaves us to the cruel winds of destiny. Better is to savor the moment and plan for the future. Jesus told a parable about planning, saying it is better to think ahead and make decisions now based on what we expect then (Lk. 14:28-29). With a plan we can flex as change happens; without a plan change will hit us like a two-by-four squarely between our eyes.

Dillinger shared a second aspect of his approach to life with Billie: "The only thing that's important is where somebody's going." This implies some form of planning, or at least a destination for our journey. It is a key question for all of us to face. Where are we going? What is our destination? Is it a place, a career goal, a vocational mission opportunity, or something else? Without a clear destination, we are adrift in the river of life, pulled hither and thither without input. If we follow Christ, our ultimate destination is heaven, and eternity with our Lord (Jn. 14:2-3). Moreover, our destination includes the end point of our character journey, which is to become exactly like Christ (Rom. 8:29), a goal that will be fulfilled but not in this life. This destination is the one that has most value, and the one we should be focused on.

When Billie asked Dillinger his destination, he responded with cocky confidence, "Anywhere I want." Yet for all this, without Billie he really had no place he wanted to be. When he succumbs to the killing bullet at the climax, it is almost with relief. His emptiness enters into oblivion. Do we want to emulate Dillinger? Without a firm destination and a plan, this might well happen to us, though less violently.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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