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Was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI the Real Public Enemy?

Michael Mann's Public Enemies, which hits theaters today, might be the best action movie of the summer (I'm holding off final judgment until I see The Hurt Locker). But unlike most blockbuster shoot-em-ups, which tend to revel in cartoonish, over-the-top violence. The gunplay in Public Enemies is certainly stylish and cinematic, but Mann also manages to imbue the bloodshed with moral gravity — in part by taking a cold look at the way the criminal investigators handled the case.

What's particularly striking is the film's portrayal of the cruelty and harsh methods employed by J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. Hoover, in the midst of a campaign to expand the reach and power of his agency, is shown ordering the Bureau's lead agent on the Dillinger case, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), to do whatever it takes to create informants — in other words, to use tough pressure tactics against those who might reveal Dillinger's whereabouts. (Purvis ends up threatening a madam in Dillinger's circle with deportation if she doesn't rat; her cooperation eventually leads to Dillinger's death.) Worse is how one of Purvis's team treats Dillinger's flame, Billie Frechette. She's beaten in the interrogation room (though this produces no useful information), evidently a victim of Hoover's power-driven "whatever it takes" attitude.

Dillinger and his crew aren't squeaky clean nice guys by any means (one of his henchmen, in particular, is portrayed as an unhinged psychopath), but it appeared fairly clear which side Mann ultimately sympathized with, and the brutality of the young, aggressive Hoover and his unchecked agency seemed to be a significant part of the reason why.


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