Friday, July 17, 2009

Mann's Mirror

In his latest film, "Public Enemies", Michael Mann ("The Last of the Mohicans", "Heat", "Collateral") has put up a mirror to our modern society, and in a mature manner consisting of historical perspective and a desire to put the soul of our society on trial, asks simply: Do the ends justify the means. Of course, for Mann, the definition of "ends" begets the means, regardless of answer. Does the Federal Bureau of Investigations stop John Dillinger, a tact bank robber whose only loyalty is to self, comrades and his girl, not his country? Or do they stop, what is at the time, a growing conglomerate of criminal enterprises, working "coast to coast", illegally making upwards of $70,000 a day, circa 1934? Do we stop bin Laden and al-Quaeda? Or do we do something about the Saudi Royal family, the Husseins of Jordan, Mubarak of Egypt, et cetera? Legitimate questions that, to a larger degree, explains the kind of nation we are as much as that which we once were.

In short, "Public Enemies" is about John Dillinger, the consummate criminal, pulling off jobs, evading the FBI and trying to find, in the dark, the outlet from which he could pull the plug on his activities and call it a day. The film provides no detailed background to the life of Dillinger, his partners, nor the G-Men hunting them down. No explanations are needed, as the purpose of the movie is of the moment. With each new bank robbery, or brazen act of defiance by the criminals, or prison break, the stakes get higher for the FBI. From the men they recruit, to the methods they employ, Mann wants us to be the fly on the wall as Director Hoover takes in suggestions and issues newer, more draconian methods. The films pace and tensity make us understand the desperate nature failure produces among results-oriented men; results that, for obvious reasons, must be positive.

Yet, there are more than one set of criminals in the film. Alongside, then opposite, the bank robbers, are the organized criminals. They run the numbers game and sports books, sell the drugs and prostitutes, payoff the authorities, manage the unions, and maintain a level of fear so as not to disrupt the order they have created. By and large, they are the bigger threat to the FBI, indeed the nation. They sell the alcohol during prohibition, while the money Dillinger steals is guaranteed by the Federal Reserve Bank. The unions they run have profound impacts on several industries nationwide, while bureau offices and local police stations devote vast resources to catching one team. It is the mafia and its activities that will infiltrate the very bloodstream of America, from New York City to Chicago to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Their invisible hand infiltrates political machines, judicial processes and public safety policies. Yet, it is in their favor, possibly on their behalf, that the government, and all its full force, hunts down Dillinger. (And I'll be damned if that hunt itself is not gangsta.)

The techniques the FBI employs is a what's-what of surveillance techniques. They get the phone companies to listen in on telephone conversations, recording them on vinal players, without warrants. They torture members and associates of Dillinger's team to get vital information that proves correct, but the obvious point is the limits to which that information is obtained: How many times would you slap a woman to get what you wanted to know? And what would that do to you? They realize prison cannot hold Dillinger, so it becomes a hunt to kill, not prosecute, which in itself changes the very nature of procedures and narrows logic. All of these techniques Mann shows are meant to hearken back the post-9/11 period; from the hunt of bin Laden (still ongoing), to the government tapping phone calls and bank accounts (still ongoing), to torture and its necessary qualities (possibly still ongoing), we forget just how much of the Constitution we were willing to suspend in order to achieve safety.

Of course, as with bin Laden, John Dillinger is not the problem, but the symptom. Desperate times produces desperate people, and when you get enough of them, someone is bound to be a stone-cold tactician. Bank robberies then, like terrorism now, are quite difficult to prevent. People are not frisked on their way into a mall on a sunny Saturday anymore than they were put through metal detectors on their way into a bank Monday morning. Funds are replenished as buildings get rebuilt. Lives are taken in the process as people become collateral, and the taking of human beings become the ultimate goal.

Still, in the film, as now, it is amazing just how far the governments will go to keep our collective eyes focused on one hand, while the other exchanges the goods and services they want kept off the books. The money earned through oil pays for Wahhabi teachings in Saudi Arabia, which is no fan of Western ideals and mores. Thus, bin Laden and al-Quaeda may be defeated, but they will always be replaced. There's a scene when a paid officer assures a leading mafioso that he has a way to stop Dillinger, whose activities are leading to a national crime bill that will federalize interstate criminal activity. The very next scene has the cop speaking with an informant, then agents, and a plan is materialized.

Terrorism, indeed Islamic funded, backed and initiated-terrorism, must be fought diligently and to a firm conclusion. It is a difficult task that will have us visit gray areas more than once. Yet, the roots of issues are where solutions can be found, not in the reactions. As much as Afghanistan must be passified for the world's benefit, not much is stopping a plan from being hatched and carried out from across your street (assuming you live in the States, Europe, or other liberally open societies). The goal must be to recruit their recruits away from that lifestyle. People with secure jobs and responsibilities rarely involves themselves in geopolitical matters in such crudely extreme manners. Would John Dillinger exist sans a Great Depression? Would bin Laden be influential sans the Saudi royal family? No one knows the answer, but we do know this: The man behind the curtain, yeah, that guy. Let's start paying some attention to him, and see where that takes us.