Public Enemies: An Academic Look Behind Hollywood’s Next Blockbuster

Collection of the NLEM 2006.220.3

By Jeni Ashton, Associate Curator, National Law Enforcement Museum

With the recent release of “Public Enemies,” I began to think about the legend of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) and wondered how the movies would treat his story. Often ‘historical’ mainstream movies gloss over some of the little details that can make a difference in how the public reads the main character (in this case Dillinger). Now it is true, as the movie depicts, that in real life the public rooted for and avidly followed Dillinger in the newspapers and on the radio, despite his murders. He and his gang were responsible for killing 12 law enforcement officers, and generally wreaking havoc.

When I was looking through our collections catalog this morning, I came across this newspaper article from April 23, 1934, titled, “Dillinger Again Escapes Police under Gun Fire, 4 Killed, 3 Shot” (above). The article describes the chase, shootout, and escape of Dillinger and many of his cohorts, and notes the death of FBI Special Agent W. Carter Baum in Eagle River, WI.

I was happy to find that this scene and Special Agent Baum’s death are shown in the “Public Enemies” movie. In this specific scene, this seems to be a small step forward in making a somewhat accurate historical blockbuster movie, even if there are moments in the film that are slightly exaggerated.

Our intern Anna found that Special Agent Baum left behind a wife and two daughters. Anna wrote, “Can you imagine becoming a single mother in the middle of the Great Depression?” This question made me pause for a second. The movie did give a nod to law enforcement; but, it might have been nice if the movie showed the effects of Dillinger’s rampaging across the Midwest. It could have given the law enforcement officials a little more depth, and hopefully gotten the viewers to think beyond the fast action bad guy stuff.