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Johnny Depp portrays notorious bank robber John Dillinger in “Public Enemies” as a man driven by the excitement of getting whatever he wants without any concern for the consequences, a wild thrill-seeker that promises excitement, adventure and the high life to whoever will hold on tight to his coattails.

By spitting in the face of the banks that many people of the film’s 1933 setting may have blamed for their own financial woes, Dillinger becomes a rebel celebrity and hero to the masses. He dines at the finest restaurants and drives the fastest cars, surrounded by sycophants and paparazzi.

In many ways, this picture of Dillinger’s popularity resembles the rock stars of today, and the film clearly shows that America’s love/hate relationship with its celebrities began long before rock ‘n’ roll was even born.

Though set in a different time period, Dillinger’s story parallels the tragic tale of many who get caught in the perilous pitfalls of celebrity. As Depp’s Dillinger – and for that matter, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain, the Gosselin family, and any host of stars – discovers, the same public that applauds celebrities’ meteoric rise to fame can just as quickly throw them plummeting from the top, only to iconicize them again after their fall.

Yes, fame is a fickle mistress.

In one respect, “Public Enemies” is a morality play about the narcissistic vigor of the youth-worshipping “me” culture.

Depp’s Dillinger declares at one point, “We’re having too good a time today; we aren’t thinking about tomorrow,” promises his girlfriend a whole new “exciting” kind of life, and when asked what he wants, declares proudly, “Everything. Right now.”

The consequences of his foolhardy rush into hedonism are foreshadowed when his girlfriend declares, “You don’t think about the past, today or tomorrow. Sooner or later it will catch up to you, and I don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But as much as I would have liked to write this review on how Dillinger eventually pays the price for his choices (after all, the movie does stick surprisingly close to the true events surrounding the real Dillinger’s life), I couldn’t ignore the film’s consistent commentary on the price of fame.

From the beginning to the end, we see a battle between J. Edgar Hoover and Dillinger for a spot in the limelight, each manipulating the public to garner favor.

In the beginning of the film, Dillinger prevails, and we get a glimpse of his motivation when he turns down a lucrative opportunity to plan a ransom heist because “the public doesn’t like a kidnapping.”

“I care what the public thinks,” Dillinger says when he declines the offer. “I hide among them.”

Even upon arrest, we see Dillinger boasting before the cameras, playing with his adoring media, as they snap photos that will fuel both his notoriety and his fan base. When he’s transferred to a new jail by police escort, crowds line the streets to wave and blow kisses at their admired hero.

But Dillinger learns the hard way that stars only remain in the celebrity heavens so long before they fall.

With the help of news releases, movie trailers and a brigade of Junior G-men championed on film as the next wave of noble crime fighters, J. Edgar Hoover gains the upper hand in the battle for the public’s eye.

In a stunning tipping point, the citizens of Sioux Falls, S.D., rather than cheering their beloved bank robber when he pulls a heist in their town, take up arms instead to stop the man effectively branded by Hoover as “Public Enemy No. 1.”

From there to Dillinger’s doom, Depp’s character watches in horror as his every fan becomes his every enemy. Like Michael Jackson after allegations of child molestation surfaced, Dillinger becomes isolated, shunned and despised.

Also like Jackson, however, a final blaze of glory brings the adoring crowds back. In death, Dillinger becomes an icon again. In real life – though not depicted in the movie – it was even reported that the crowds who gathered at the scene of his death dipped their clothes in his blood to preserve as mementos and chipped away pieces of his tombstone as souvenirs.

Yes, America loves its celebrities, until they hate them, until they love them again after their death.

In the end, it’s neither Dillinger’s lack of wits nor the brilliant police work of the feds (who are often portrayed as dunces in the film) that win the victory, but Hoover’s ability to manipulate public opinion through the media. These two opponents become “public enemies,” not just in real life, but in the press.

In an age when America’s president is called the world’s biggest celebrity, it should give us a moment to pause. Before we are too swiftly caught up in what Americans have done since at least the 1930s – make celebrity heroes of questionable characters – we should stop and ask: Do we really have cause to be enamored with this person, or despise that person; or have we just been snared by the Hoovers of the world, who know just how to manipulate the media into defining who is a public hero and who is a “public enemy?”

Content advisory:

  • “Public Enemies” is filled with gun fights, brawling and violence. The blood gore is surprisingly detailed and realistic, likely the primary reason for the movie’s “R” rating.
  • The film contains several instances of profanity, though it’s uttered in reasonably expected places and doesn’t overpower the other dialogue.
  • Dillinger and his girlfriend engage in a long sex scene that includes partial nudity and graphic depictions of sexual movement. With a separate dialogue running throughout and moonlit lighting, the scene is intended to be artistic, but will likely be considered too explicit for many viewers. The film has little sexual content outside of that scene.
  • There is virtually no religious or occultic content in the film, though Dillinger does engage in an intriguing discussion on the moment of death and “what keeps you up nights” when you’ve watched people die.
  • The film contains a pair of torture scenes by federal interrogators that startled the audience at my theater. Both scenes are brutal, though one is depicted as effective, the other both ineffective and despicable. In addition to the torture scenes, the movie portrays federal wiretapping and the FBI’s expansion of powers to catch Dillinger, a clear attempt to raise questions about modern investigative techniques.

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