At the beginning of the late-Depression-era classic comedy Sullivan’s Travels, spoiled rich-boy director John L. Sullivan, announces he wants to live rough for a while so he can make a searing drama about the poor. His handlers try to dissuade him, but Sullivan insists he has an obligation to illuminate a country where “people [are] slaughtered like sheep.” Amid the clamor over Sullivan’s safety, one of his handlers advances an idea about viewers’ tastes: “Maybe,” in a country stricken by the downturn, the advisor suggests, audiences “want to forget about that stuff.” His point, and the lesson Sullivan eventually learns through his ensuing series of misadventures is that Hollywood directors aren’t meant to illuminate society—and that audiences don’t necessarily want them to.
Just as John Sullivan did 68 years ago, directors and studios today are turning to the perfidy and meltdown of the financial system for inspiration—and as a hook to get audiences in the door. The results so far are uneven. This time around, Hollywood has attempted to spice up its banking stories with everything from international conspiracies to goat demons, to Tommy Guns. The offerings include one soporific clunker, one engaging thrill-ride, and one terrific biopic. But none of them comes close to explaining or illuminating the financial crisis that’s touched so many Americans’ lives, driving them to movie theaters in increasing numbers as they search for cheap entertainment and escape.
The first of the new meltdown movies, The International, released in February, is the most boring film I’ve ever seen about arms dealing, political assassination, and corruption. The plot centers on Clive Owens’ and Naomi Watts’ investigation of an evil bank, loosely based on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (the Pakistani institution that was shuttered in 1991 amidst charges of fraud, money laundering, and setting up accounts for Abu Nidal, the founder of Fatah).
Not content with that already impressive rap sheet, The International’s naughty bank offers some of its clients not toasters, but Chinese missiles retrofitted with Italian guidance technology, when they agree to open accounts. The movie’s original sin lies in making the bank blandly evil. The story of how the financial industry got caught up in the collective madness of endlessly extending and repackaging debt is a far more interesting and subtle story than the standard supervillian-who-destablizes-the-world-for gain formula, but The International has no interest in telling it, nor has it much interest in actual finance.
“You control the debt, you control everything,” a character warns Owen and Watts at one point. “You find this upsetting, yes? But this is the essence of the banking industry, to make us all, whether we be nations or individuals, slaves to debt.”
Well, sort of. The lecture about the power and evil of debt sounds apt as credit dries up and people worldwide find they cannot pay what they owe. But the bankers in The International are theoretically smart for having figured out that becoming the bank of choice for wanna-be dictators and rogue states is a solid bet: warmongers need weapons, and they need credit with which to buy them. The bank does some damage to the countries where it finances small wars, but at least it isn’t generating questionable debts that may never be repaid and turning around and repackaging them. If only home lenders and the investors who traded on mortgages had been as savvy.
By contrast, the mortgage bankers in Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi’s highly entertaining return to horror, bear some resemblance to their real-world counterparts, and the film’s premise, that people will cling to their real estate even after they cannot pay for it (or even after goat demons rise through their floors) has some emotional resonance for Americans facing foreclosure. The movie centers on the torments visited on a softhearted young loan officer named Christine after, angling for a promotion, she turns down an aged gypsy for a third extension on her mortgage payments. The old lady lays down one hell of a curse on her tormentor, raising the question of how a woman who can summon demons on command ever falls short of money.
But despite the slightly more realistic financial circumstances, Drag Me to Hell still gets the mortgage crisis wrong. There’s something funny but queasy about watching a hair-pulling-stapler-wielding fight between Christine and the gypsy in a parking garage. Who doesn’t like seeing a victim of foreclosure fight back? But while Christine isn’t exactly the bad guy—she’s acting under orders and on bank policy—she’s not a hero, either. I found myself sympathizing not with her, but with her rival for the promotion, “someone who’s not afraid to crunch the numbers and make the tough decisions,” as Christine’s boss says. The guy also later turns out to be a thief and corporate schemer, but notwithstanding those less attractive traits, he sounds like a better candidate for the job. If more mortgage officers had made those tough decisions, and regretfully but firmly denied loans to decrepit gypsies, sporadically-employed fruit pickers, and even New York Times financial reporters with whopping alimony payments, fewer people would be losing their homes, and fewer traders would have been gleefully swapping securities based on their risks.
The movie’s truest moment is when Christine, desperate to pay for an exorcism, ransacks her house for anything she can pawn. It’s possible to feel bad for her, even while recognizing that she’s partly responsible for her circumstances, the kind of moral reckoning that many Americans are facing as the good times fade.
Like The International and Drag Me To Hell, Public Enemies, the latest, and by far the finest of the new crop of movies about banking and hard times in America, is a revenge fantasy. But the reason it ultimately succeeds is because, like Sullivan’s Travels, Public Enemies ultimately becomes a meditation on the movies and the possibilities and importance of escape.
John Dillinger became a folk hero, and the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation’s nemesis, for a brief period in the Great Depression by becoming a successful – and oddly gentlemanly—bank robber. Michael Mann, directing Johnny Depp as Dillinger, sets up his mythos in the opening bank robbery, when Dillinger tells a frightened patron who has produced his money for the gang during a robbery, “Put it away. We’re not here for your money. We’re here for the bank’s money.”
But Public Enemies doesn’t spend a lot of time establishing the hardships of the Depression (I counted a grand total of two destitute men in the streets) or the perceived predations of the banks, in part because such a set-up would give too much credence to the idea that Dillinger was an actual hero. That first stickup ends with the bank’s president as Dillinger’s hostage, held up as a shield on the running board of the getaway car. As Dillinger fires a Tommy Gun around his head, the banker’s as stunned and frightened as anyone else. Small bank presidents like that weren’t the architects of the Great Depression, any more than small bankers are today, and Mann doesn’t try to draw parallels between Dillinger’s victims and the financial titans that today’s economic downturn has laid low. He suggests that Dillinger is aware that he’s not taking down the system. On his first date with Billie Frechette, the woman who becomes his lover, he tells her by way of introduction, “I’m John Dillinger, I rob banks.” She pauses in stunned silence, already uncomfortable that her cheap dress is out of place in the fancy restaurant. “That’s where all these people put their money,” Dillinger says by way of a malicious punchline.
But the movie doesn’t linger on the morality of bank robbery, and the pace picks up in the second half of the film as Dillinger reluctantly joins forces with a murderous and unstable gangster named Machine Gun Kelly for a robbery that goes bad, putting Dillinger on the run, and ultimately leading to his death at the hands of the F.B.I. Mann weaves a number of lovely cinematic touches into this sequence of events. The thieves meet to plan the robbery in a movie theater that turns out to be playing a federal public service announcement calling for the public to turn Dillinger in. A vertiginous shot looking up from below Depp’s face to the blue lights of the theater ceiling telegraphs his fear, which turns to triumph as the audience, on instructions of the newsreel, looks left, looks right, and misses Dillinger entirely. After the botched robbery, as the men hide out in a motel called the Little Bohemia Lodge, Machine Gun Kelly frightens a couple with his James Cagney impersonation. And on the last night of Dillinger’s life, Mann fills up the screen with scenes from the movie that he – together with a madame, Anna Sage, and a prostitute, Polly Hamilton – actually went to see that night, lingering on shots of Myrna Loy until she bids farewell to Clark Gable, whispering “Bye, bye, Blackie.”
As Dillinger dies on the pavement, one of the experienced agents who shot him stoops down in time to catch a mangled sound emerging from his lips. But when he goes to visit Billie in prison, where she’s been sent after a vicious beating, Dillinger’s executioner seems to draw on the movie Dillinger just attended to give her a happy ending, telling her Dillinger’s last words were a message to her: “Bye, bye, Blackbird.”
It’s an oddly sentimental note in an emotionally restrained movie, but it works, giving Billie and the viewer relief from the grimness of Dillinger’s death, which Mann shoots in sharp digital, showing the blood pulsing from a hole in his cheek. In that moment, Public Enemies is escapist movie entertainment at its best. As Veronica Lake comments in Sullivan’s Travels, describing a scene in a comedy she loved: “That was wonderful. Of course it was stupid, but it was wonderful.”