The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment

J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)

Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine