Favorite Television Productions Set During the U.S. CIVIL WAR

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the U.S. Civil War: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET DURING THE U.S. CIVIL WAR

1. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – This three-part CBS miniseries focused on the experiences of two families linked by two sisters – the Geysers of Virginia and the Hales of Pennsylvania – during the U.S. Civil War. John Hammond and Stacy Keach starred.

2. “Copper” (2012-2013) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this BBC America series about an Irish immigrant policeman/war veteran who patrols and resides in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred.

3. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – James Read and Patrick Swayze starred in this six-part television adaptation of John Jakes’s 1984 novel, “Love and War”, the second one in John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy. David L. Wolper produced and Kevin Connor directed.

4. “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th U.S. President during the U.S. Civil War. Lamont Johnson directed.

5. “The Young Riders” (1989-1992) – Ed Spielman created this ABC television series about six riders who rode for the Pony Express between 1860 and 1861. Ty Miller, Josh Brolin and Anthony Zerbe starred.

6. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Steven Spielberg produced this ABC television movie about a few West Point graduates who found themselves on opposite sides of the U.S. Civil War. Dan Futterman, Clive Owen and Andre Braugher starred.

7. “Mercy Street” (2016-2017) – Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel created this PBS series that followed two hospital nurses on opposite sides, at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James and Josh Radnor starred.

8. “Lincoln” (1974-1976) – Hal Holbrook and Sara Thompson starred in this NBC six-part miniseries about the life of the 16th U.S. President. George Schaefer directed.

9. “The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance” (1978) – Brock Peters starred in this Disney television movie about an escaped Union soldier who flees to the Union lines with five Northern children who had been snatched and held as hostages by Confederate soldiers during the war. Russ Mayberry directed.

10. “For Love and Glory” (1993) – Roger Young directed this failed CBS pilot about a wealthy Virginia family disrupted by the older son’s marriage to a young working-class woman and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Daniel Markel, Tracy Griffith, Kate Mulgrew and Robert Foxworth starred.

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Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1960s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1960s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1960s

1. “Mad Men” (2007-2015) – Matthew Weiner created this award-winning series about the professional and personal life of an advertising executive during the 1960s. Jon Hamm starred.

2. “Kennedy” (1983) – Martin Sheen, Blair Brown and John Shea starred in this seven-part miniseries about the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The miniseries was written by Reg Gadney and directed by Jim Goddard.

3. “Tour of Duty” (1987-1990) – Steve Duncan and L. Travis Clark created this television series about an U.S. Army infantry platoon during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Terence Knox and Stephen Caffrey starred.

4. “Pan Am” (2011-2012) – Jack Orman created this series about the lives of four Pan Am stewardesses and two pilots during the early 1960s. The series starred Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie, Karine Vanasse, Mike Vogel, Michael Mosley and Christina Ricci.

5. “Vegas” (2012-2013) – Nicholas Pileggi and Greg Walker created this series about the conflict between Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb and a Chicago mobster named Vincent Savino. Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis starred.

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6. “The Astronaut Wives Club” (2015) – Stephanie Savage produced this adaptation of Lily Kopel’s 2013 book about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts. The cast included Joanna García Swisher, Yvonne Strahovski and Dominique McElligott.

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7. “The Kennedys” (2011) – Jon Cassar directed this award winning miniseries that chronicled the lives of the Kennedy family between the 1940s and the 1960s. Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper, Diana Hardcastle and Tom Wilkinson starred.

8. “Crime Story” (1986-1988) – Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger created this television series about the bitter conflict between a Chicago police lieutenant and a mobster in the mid 1960s. Dennis Farina and Anthony Denison starred.

9. “Path to War” (2002) – John Frankenheimer directed this HBO movie that dealt with the Vietnam War through the eyes of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin starred.

10. “Public Morals” (2015) – Edward Burns created and starred in this TNT limited series about police detectives who worked for the Public Morals Division of the New York City Police Department.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

I never saw “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” in the movie theaters when it was first released years ago. I have a low tolerance of sports movies and there are only a few that I consider favorites of mine. Another reason why I never saw this film in the theaters is that my family simply had no desire to see it. 

Based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel and directed by Robert Redford, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was a box office flop. Worse, it had received mixed to negative reviews. Among the criticisms directed at the film was the accusation that the Bagger Vance character was basically a “Magical Negro” trope. I have to be honest. I was never aware of these criticisms or the film’s status as a flop. I barely noticed the film when it was first released. And I did not see it for the first time until a few years later on cable television.

Near the end of the 20th century, an old man from Savannah, Georgia named Hardy Greaves began experiencing his sixth heart attack, while playing golf. This led him to reminisce about his love of the game and how it connected to his childhood idol, one Rannulph Junuh. The latter turned out to be one of Savannah’s Junuh is the favorite son of early 20th century Savannah, Georgia and a highly regarded golfer. He became engaged to Adele Invergordon, a young socialite from a wealthy family before he went off to war. While serving as an Army captain during World War I, Junuh became tramatized when his entire company was wiped out during a battle. Although he earned the Medal of Honor, Junuh disappeared after the war for several years, before returning to Georgia to live a life of a drunk.

During this time, Adele’s father attempted to create a local golf resort. Mr. Invergordon finally opened the resort, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression bankrupted him. In an effort to recover her family’s fortune before the banks could claim her land, Adele decided to hold a four-round, two-day golf match between At the start of the Great Depression (circa 1930-31), Adele is trying to recover her family’s lost fortune by holding a four-round, two-day exhibition match between two golf legends of the era – Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen with a grand prize of $10,000.

However, she needs a local participant to generate the city’s interest. The young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) speaks up for his golf hero, Junuh, prompting Adele to ask her estranged love to play. Junuh is approached by a mysterious traveler carrying a suitcase, who appears while Junuh is trying to hit golf balls into the dark void of night. The man identifies himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and says he will be Junuh’s caddie. With Greaves as the young assistant caddie, Bagger helps Junuh come to grips with his personal demons and play golf again.

It was not that surprising that “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel. However, I was very surprised to learn that Pressfield had loosely based his novel on the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. In this text, Warrior/Hero Arjuna (R. Junuh . . . get it?) refuses to fight. And the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) to help Arjuna (R. Junuh) follow the path of the warrior and hero (sports hero) that he was meant to take.

Considering that this movie was not that popular with moviegoers or critics, one would be hard pressed to even like it. I have my complaints about “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. There were moments when the movie threatened to become a little saccharin, especially midway into the golf tournament when Junuh finally began displaying those exceptional golf skills that made him such a legend before the war. Savannah’s reaction to Junah’s golf game and yes . . . even the ending struck me as a tad syrupy. I realize that this movie is one of those feel-good movies wrapped up in sports, but I think Redford could have tone down the saccharin a bit. I also feel that he could have tone down some of the performances of the supporting cast. Overall, all of them gave solid performances. But there were times when the supporting cast – namely those portraying Savannah’s citizens – seemed to be chewing the scenery.

Despite the flashes of saccharin and hamminess, I have to admit that I enjoyed “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” as much as I did when I first saw it. There is so much to enjoy about this film. One of them is the movie’s production values. I wish I could say something about Rachel Portman’s score. Mind you, I thought it blended well with the movie’s narrative. But I did not find the particularly memorable. However, I thought hers and Redford’s use of early 20th century songs and music well done. As for the movie’s re-creation of early 20th century Savannah, I found it more than memorable. Frankly, I found it mind-blowing. Stuart Craig had managed to acquire a good number of awards and nominations for his work, but he never received any acclaim for his production designs for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Personally, I find this rather criminal. His production designs were exquisite. And they were enhanced even further by Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography, which was nominated for Satellite Award. Yes, I realize that a Satellite Award is not the same as an Academy Award, a BAFTA or a Golden Globe Award. But at least someone acknowledged his work on this movie. Judianna Makovsky has done her share of costume designing for Marvel Films and other movies. And she has also received at least three Academy Award nominations. But she did not receive any for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Again . . . criminal. Her costumes struck me as an exquisite recreation of the period between 1917 and 1931 – especially the latter. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look:

Hollywood always seemed to have difficulty in re-creating the 1930s in costumes and hairstyles. Thanks to Ms. Makovsky, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” proved to be one of those movies that got that period – especially the early 1930s – right.

But I was really impressed by how director Robert Redford and screenwriter used the game of golf to portray Rannulph Junuh’s post-war struggles. Unlike many other sports films, Junuh had already achieved a reputation as a superb golfer in the opening scenes. This meant that the conflict was not about Junuh trying to prove to the world that he was a talented golfer. In fact, this movie was not even about Junuh trying to prove that despite the passage of fourteen years, he was still a top-notch golfer. That was proven by the tournament’s second day. World War I had left Rannulph Junuh traumatized and broken to the point that he returned home as an alcoholic – estranged from Adele Invergordon and many of Savannah’s citizens. It was the golf tournament that led Junuh to Bagger Vance, the story’s embodiment of a deity or spirit that not helped the former get back his groove as a top notch golfer. Bagger also helped Junuh, through the game of golf, regain that human spirit everyone thought he had lost during the war.

As I had earlier pointed out, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was not a box office hit. One of the main complaints charged by film critics and others was the Bagger Vance character portrayed by Will Smith. Many had accused the character of being a “Magical Negro” stereotype. Considering Bagger’s role in the film as spiritual guide for Rannulph Junuh and the fact that the character was portrayed by African-American actor Will Smith, it is not difficult to agree that Bagger Vance was a “Magical Negro”. I do find it ironic that a fictional character labeled as a “Magical Negro” was based upon a Hindu religious figure. Did that affect my viewing of the film? Honestly? No. I enjoyed Smith’s performance too much to really care. Was his Bagger Vance very saintly? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Smith did portray Vance as a friendly and soft-spoken man with a well of good advice on the game of golf. However, Smith also did a superb job in conveying Vance’s controlling and occasional sardonic nature underneath the soft-spoken manner.

Ironically, Matt Damon had the easier job portraying the damaged World War I veteran/golfer, Rannulph Junuh. His job was easier, due to the fact that he was never criticized for portraying a stereotype. Otherwise, Damon did an excellent job in conveying Junuh’s emotional journey from a happy-go-lucky sports figure to shell shocked war veteran, later an alcoholic community pariah and finally to a battered yet satisfied survivor who managed to regain his life after so many years. If I have to be perfectly honest, the Adele Invergordon has to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Charlize Theron. Thanks to actress’ energetic performance, Adele proved to be a passionate and outgoing woman who had to resort to charm, guile, brains and God knows what else to overcome the traumas of losing her father to suicide and Junuh to his personal demons in order to save her family’s fortunes and plans for a golf resort. Theron practically lit up the screen whenever she appeared.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” also featured excellent performances from Bruce McGill, who did such a wonderful job in portraying the theatrical golfer, Walter Hagen; Joel Gretsch, who skillfully portrayed Bobby Jones as a man who hid a raging ambition behind a gracious persona; and Peter Gerety as the hard-nosed city councilman/businessman, Neskaloosa. I do not know if I could regard J. Michael Moncrief (who was 12 years old at the time) as an excellent child actor. But I must admit that I admired the enthusiasm and energy he poured into his portrayal of young Hardy Greaves. As for Jack Lemmon, he did an excellent job as the elderly Hardy and the movie’s narrator.

Overall, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” had its few shares of flaws. And utilizing the “Magical Negro” probably hurt its chances to be a successful movie. But . . . “Magical Negro” or not, I really enjoyed this movie, thanks to director Robert Redford and the screenplay written by Jeremy Leven. The movie also benefited from a superb production design and a first-rate cast led by Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.

“MERCY STREET” Season One (2016) Episode Ranking

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Below is my ranking of the Season One episodes of the PBS Civil War medical series called “MERCY STREET”. Created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, the series stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James and Josh Radnor:

“MERCY STREET” SEASON ONE (2016) EPISODE RANKING

1 - 1.04 The Belle Alliance

1. (1.04) “The Belle Alliance” – Emma and Alice Green, along with Confederate spy Frank Stringfellow plot a daring plan to help prisoner-of-war Tom Fairfax escape during an Union ball held at the Greens’ house . . . with tragic results. Meanwhile, Union nurse Mary Phinney and Dr. Jedediah Foster (still recovering from his drug detox), guide freedman Samuel Diggs through a delicate operation on the pregnant former slave Aurelia Johnson.

2 - 1.03 The Uniform

2. (1.03) “The Uniform” – Maryland-born Dr. Foster confronts his family’s divided loyalties when his mother and wounded Confederate brother arrive. Alice is shocked to find fiancé, Tom Fairfax, deeply changed by the war. Samuel and Aurelia try to persuade a slave boy owned by Mrs. Foster to seize a chance at freedom.

3 - 1.01 The New Nurse

3. (1.01) “The New Nurse” – The series premiere featured the recently widowed Mary’s arrival in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia to assume the position of head nurse at a Union military hospital that used to be a local hotel owned by the Southern Green family.

4 - 1.05 The Dead Room

4. (1.05) “The Dead Room” – The unexpected visit of an inspector throws the hospital’s staff into disarray. Mary feels empathy for an army deserter, while Samuel is hunted by a trio of Delaware-born soldiers who believe he had stolen their wounded brother’s provisions. Tom’s tragic death forces James Green Sr. to take a risky step to help the soldier’s family and earn the Green family’s respect.

5 - 1.06 The Diabolical Plot

5. (1.06) “The Diabolical Plot” – Frank Stringfellow sets in motion an assassination plot, when he learns that President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Lincoln plan to visit the Mercy Street hospital. A recovering Aurelia decides to leave Alexandria in order to find her brother and Dr. Foster uncovers a scheme to undermine him at the expense of his patients.

6 - 1.02 The Haversack

6. (1.02) “The Haversack” – Emma nurses Tom, her sister’s fiancé. Dr. Foster wrestles with his marriage and career. Mary strives to improve the lives of her patients with help from Samuel. And Aurelia finds herself swept into a corrupt and sordid deal with the hospital’s slimy quartermaster, Silas Bullen.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

This month marks the 77th anniversary of when Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, was killed by the FBI in Chicago, Illinois. Below is my review of “PUBLIC ENEMIES”, the 2009 movie on the last year of Dillinger’s life: 

 

“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I first heard about Michael Mann’s plans to film a movie about Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, I became excited. It was not the subject that roused my interest. But I found the idea of Mann shooting a movie set during the height of the Great Depression – 1933 to 1934 – rather interesting. It has become a period in U.S. history that has caught my interest in the past five years. And the fact that Johnny Depp and Christian Bale had been cast in the leads as Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, merely increased my interest.

At first, I had assumed that I would love ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. I assumed that Mann could do no wrong. Then to my surprise, I discovered that the film had received mixed reviews from film critics. From that moment on, I began to harbor doubts about the film’s quality. I never learn. Never. I had forgotten my most important rule about approaching a movie – the only opinion that should count for me is my own. And when I finally saw”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I realized that I had to learn that particular lesson all over again.

I want to point out that ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” is not perfect. This does not bother me one bit. Perfect movies are extremely rare. And I suspect . . . not know, but suspect I may have seen one or two in my lifetime. However,”PUBLIC ENEMIES” is not one of those rare examples of cinematic perfection. First of all, the movie – especially its first hour – seemed to be marred by an uncomfortable number of close-ups by cinematographer Dante Spinotti. This discomfort was especially apparent in action scenes like the prison escape from the Indiana State Prison featured in the film’s opening scene , “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s death at the hands of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and John Dillinger’s first bank robbery featured in the film. These close-ups brought back memories of the ones featured in Disney’s ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”.

But at the least the close-ups in the 2003 film were not further marred by quick editing done by Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford for this film. Watching their zip fast editing reminded me of those featured in movies like the last two”BOURNE” films, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, both ”TRANSFORMERS” movies, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” and ”STAR TREK”. I suspect that this new editing style is fast becoming the new thing in the film industry. Personally, I hate it. I find it cheap and confusing.

I have one last complaint about the film and it has to do with David Wenham’s appearance in the film. The Australian actor portrayed Harry Pierpont, one of Dillinger’s closest friends and a mentor. Yet, he barely spoke a few words in the movie. In fact, he seemed more like a background character than a supporting one. Giovanni Ribisi had more lines in the film and his character, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, had no real close ties with Dillinger. Why did Mann and the two other screenwriters, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, bothered to include the Pierpont character in the first place? Instead of at least a minor exploration of the Dillinger-Pierpont relationship, the screenwriters reduced Pierpont – Dillinger’s mentor – to a minor character with a few lines.

Now that I have put all of that negativity behind me, it is time to discuss why I had enjoyed ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”so much. Perhaps I am being a bit too subtle. I did not merely enjoy ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I loved it. It has easily become my favorite movie this summer. So far. Fast editing and close-ups aside, I must admit that I admire how director Michael Mann handled the movie’s pacing. I was surprised to learn about the criticisms leveled at the movie’s running time (two hours and nineteen minutes) and especially its alleged running time. Personally, I was impressed by Mann’s steady pace. Expecting the movie to be over two hours long, I was surprised to discover that amount of time had passed when the end credits finally began to roll. Perhaps I had been so caught up in the story that I failed to notice the time. Which is a compliment to Mann’s direction . . . at least from me.

Many scenes directed by Man left me spellbound. They include Baby Face Nelson’s murder of a FBI Agent at a hotel ambush set up by Purvis; Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana; his escape from said prison; the FBI ‘s capture of Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frichette; Frichette’s interrogation and beating at the hands of a FBI agent; and Purvis’ conversation with prostitute and brothel madam, Anna Sage.

But there were four scenes . . . actually, two scenes and two sequences that truly impressed me. The first one featured Purvis’ telephone conversation with his boss, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In it, Purvis tries to convince the irate Hoover that many of their agents are not experienced enough to hunt down the likes of Dillinger and Nelson and that they need to recruit more experienced men . . . like Texas Rangers. Despite the fact that the two actors portraying Purvis and Hoover do not share the screen, the emotion between their characters crackled like flames, thanks to their performances and Mann’s direction. The other scene featured Dillinger’s arrival in Indiana by plane, after being arrested by Federal agents in Tucson, Arizona. Although brief, it struck a surreal note within me, thanks to Spinott’s photography. The cinematographer shot the entire scene with colors that projected a soft iron, mingled with a reddish-orange tint from the sun. Very beautiful.

Although I found the scenes mentioned above very memorable, I was rendered speechless by the following sequences. The first centered around the violent shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin in April 1934. I am certain that many critics and moviegoers had ended up comparing this sequence with the famous Downtown Los Angeles shootout in Mann’s 1995 movie, ”HEAT”. Granted, the latter turned out longer and was filmed in the daytime, but this Little Bohemia shootout turned out to be just as effective and exciting, despite being filmed at night. But if there is one sequence that filled me with great satisfaction, it was the one that featured the last night of Dillinger’s life. Mann, along with Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley, Rosemary Brandenburg’s set designs, Patrick Lumb, William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, the screenwriters and the cast did a superb job in conveying the director’s own detailed account of that hot, July night in 1934. I, for one, was glad that Mann took his time in leading to that moment when Texas Ranger Charles Winstead shot Dillinger dead. The director gave movie audiences a glimpse of street life in Depression-era Chicago during the summertime. He also allowed the audience to experience Dillinger’s pleasure in viewing Clark Gable’s spunk and Myrna Loy’s beauty in the 1934 MGM movie, ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. With the camera, the audience waited nervously along with Purvis, Winstead and the other lawmen who waited outside the Biograph Theater for Dillinger. This is one of the most detailed and marvelously shot sequences I have ever seen on film in the past decade or two.

Another aspect of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” that struck me as unique was its style. Past movies about Depression-era criminals from the Midwest and the South like (1967) “BONNIE AND CLYDE”(1974) “MELVIN PURVIS, G-MAN”, and (1975) “THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE” tend to have this rural or “good ‘ole boy” style, similar to movies and television shows like (1977) “SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT” and (1979-85) “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD”. These films were usually filled with a great deal of wild car chases, over-the-top acting and a Country-Western tune emphasizing the action. ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to go against this rural style. Instead, most of Mann’s Midwestern criminals are not some wild, country boys that went on a crime spree as some reaction against the Depression’s economic woes. His criminals – especially Dillinger – are professional criminals, whose experiences go back long before the first impact of the Depression. Nor is Mann’s Melvin Purvis is some long experienced “good ‘ole boy” lawman with a Mississippi Valley or Southwestern accent like Ben Johnson in(1973) “DILLINGER” or Dale Robertson in his two TV movies about the FBI agent. His Purvis is a lot closer to the real one, a South Carolinian gentleman in his early thirties, who happened to be a trained lawyer and an excellent shot. Both Dillinger and Purvis come off as more sophisticated than their portrayals featured in earlier movies. And the characters’ sophistication certainly reflected the movie’s more serious tone. Something I certainly had no problems with.

John Dillinger may turn out to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Johnny Depp. Much has been made of Dillinger’s charm and joie de vivre . . . and Depp certainly did not hesitate to replicate it in front of the camera. One prime example of this charm was featured in Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana. I have seen the original 1934 newsreel featuring the famous press conference and I must say that Depp did a beautiful job of recapturing Dillinger’s actions – from the bank robber’s attitude, right down to his body language.

But there were other aspects of Dillinger’s personality that Depp did not hesitate to portray – his romantic charm that won Billie Frichette’s heart and cynical sense of humor. Most importantly, Depp’s performance reminded the audience that Dillinger had been capable of being a cold-blooded criminal. After all, he had drifted into crime long before the economic upheaval of the Depression. And Depp’s performance made that clear, whether his Dillinger was expressing fury at one colleague, whose beating of a prison guard led to the death of an old friend in the film’s opening prison break; his lack of remorse toward his many crimes, his connection to the Chicago mob; and his willingness to murder anyone who got in his way. Depp not only perfectly portrayed Dillinger as a charming and extroverted rogue, but also as a tender lover, a hardened criminal unwilling to give up his profession and if need be, a killer.

I have noticed that in the past two or three years, Christian Bale has found himself in the thankless task of portraying characters less flamboyant than his co-stars. This certainly seemed to be the case in the 2006 Victorian melodrama ”THE PRESTIGE” with the more outgoing Hugh Jackman; in the 2008 Batman sequel,”THE DARK KNIGHT”, in which his performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman contrasted sharply with Heath Ledger’s wildly chaotic Joker; and in the recent ”TERMINATOR SALVATION”, in which he seemed to be overshadowed in the eyes of many by the more overtly masculine Sam Worthington. Mind you, Bale gave superb performances in all of these films. Yet, his co-stars seemed to be grabbing most of the glory. This also seemed to be the case in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, in which he portrays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to capture Dillinger, one way or the other. Whereas Depp’s Dillinger is all charm and flash, Bale’s Purvis is a resolute and educated South Carolina gentleman, who also happened to be a somewhat competent lawman determined to hunt down the bank robber by any means possible. And that included following Director Hoover’s insistence on ”taking the white gloves off” or insisting that the FBI recruit experienced Texas Rangers for the manhunt. Bale not only did an excellent job in conveying Purvis’ quiet determination in hunting down Dillinger, but the agent’s anxious fear that he may never capture the bank robber on a permanent basis. Bale also effectively portrayed Purvis’ ruthlessness in dealing with those who stood between him and Dillinger. Melvin Purvis is not a splashy role for Bale, but the latter certainly did an excellent job of portraying the lawman’s many personality facets.

Before I saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I had feared that the addition of Billie Frichette (Dillinger’s girlfriend) into the story would make her presence irrelevant and threaten to drag the film. Fortunately, Mann and the other two screenwriters – Bennett and Biderman – along with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard did justice to the Frichette character. Cotillard gave an excellent performance as a hatcheck woman who captured Dillinger’s heart. She portrayed Frichette as a slightly melancholy woman who not only resented society’s bigotry against her ancestry (her mother was half French, half –Menominee), but also feared that her relationship with Dillinger may not last very long. One of Cotillard’s best moments featured the hatcheck woman being interrogated and beaten by one of Purvis’ agents, who is determined to learn Dillinger’s whereabouts. And despite being French-born and raised, Cotillard proved that she could use a Midwestern accent circa 1933, just as well as an American actress.

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to be filled with some memorable supporting roles. And a handful of performances stood out for me. I enjoyed Jason Clarke’s quiet and subtle performance as Dillinger’s close friend and colleague, the dependable John “Red” Hamilton, who seemed convinced that he and the bank robber were doomed to live short lives. Clarke especially shone in an emotional scene in which a badly wounded Hamilton tried to convince Dillinger to stop clinging fervently to all people and things that mattered too much to him. And there was Billy Crudup (a face I have been seeing with great frequency over the past few years), who gave an entertaining and sharp performance as FBI Director and publicity hound, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup managed to capture a great deal of the legendary director’s personality as much as possible – especially Hoover’s staccato-style speech pattern. And his scenes with Bale brimmed with a layer of emotion that made their on-screen relationship one of the more interesting ones in the movie.

Another performance that caught my attention belonged to Stephen Graham as the trigger-happy Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis. I have to give Graham kudos for effectively projecting a certain facet of Nelson’s persona from both Dillinger and Purvis’ points-of-view. In Dillinger’s eyes, Graham portrayed Nelson as a trigger happy clown and bad Cagney impersonator, whose criminal skills seemed to belong to an amateur. In his major scene with Purvis, Graham portrayed Nelson as a dangerous criminal, quite capable of efficiently killing Federal agents in cold blood. And it was a pleasant surprise to see the always competent Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead, one of the Texas Rangers recruited by Purvis to assist in the FBI manhunt for Dillinger. Lang first worked for Mann in 1986’s ”MANHUNTER” and the television series, ”CRIME STORY”. Since then, he has portrayed a vast array of memorable characters over the years. In ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, he gave another excellent performance as the stoic and intimidating Winstead, whose vast experience with criminal manhunts allowed him to act as a de factomentor for the less experienced Purvis. One last performance that caught my attention belonged to Branka Katić’s portrayal of Anna Sage, the so-called ”Woman in Red” who had betrayed Dillinger to the FBI in Chicago. Actually, Sage never wore red on the night she led the FBI to the Biograph Theater and Dillinger. But that is beside the point. Katić gave an intelligent performance as the world-weary, Romanian-born madam that found herself forced to help the FBI ambush the bank robber.

Every now and then, I eventually come across some comparisons between ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” and ”HEAT”in some of the articles I have read about the former. And the comparison usually ends in the 1995 movie’s favor. Do I agree with this assessment? Honestly, I have no answer. Both movies are superb crime dramas with a few flaws. Whereas ”HEAT” managed to capture the miasma of late 20th century Los Angeles, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” reeked with the slightly gray aura of the Depression-era Midwest . . . especially Chicago. And whereas the pacing for ”HEAT” threatened to drag in its last hour, the quick editing and constant close-ups nearly marred the first hour of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But you know what? I love both movies.  And ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”proved to be another example of why Michael Mann continues to be one of my favorite movie directors.

“LEATHERHEADS” (2008) Review

“LEATHERHEADS” (2008) Review

As a rule, I usually do not like sports movies. I can think of at least six or seven that are personal favorites of mine. After seeing the recent football comedy, ”LEATHERHEADS”, I can honestly say that the number has risen to eight. 

George Clooney, who also directed the film, plays Dodge Connolly, captain of the struggling football team, the Duluth Bulldogs. Dodge is determined to save both his team and professional football in general when the players lose their sponsor and the league is on the brink of collapse. He convinces a college football star, Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski), to join the Bulldogs, in order to capitalize on Carter’s fame as a war hero. In addition to his legendary tales of heroism in World War I, Carter has dashing good looks and unparalleled speed and skill on the field. As a result of his presence, both the Bulldogs and football in general prosper. Rene Zellweger provided romantic interest as reporter Lexie Littleton, who becomes the object of the affections of both Carter and Dodge. Unbeknown to Carter, Lexie has been assigned to find proof that Carter’s stories of military heroism are bogus. Meanwhile, Dodge’s attempts to legitimize professional football start to backfire, as rules are formalized, taking away much of the improvisational antics that made the game fun for many of its players.

I had expected to mildly enjoy ”LEATHERHEADS” or at least enjoy the 1920s setting. Instead, I found myself really enjoying the story of Dodge Connolly’s comic attempts to legitimize professional football, and his romantic rivalry with Carter Rutherford for Lexie Littleton’s heart. The comic timing featured in the script written by George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly and Stephen Schiff is wonderful. The performances – especially the three leads – were fabulous. Clooney, Zellweger and Krasinski proved that they all possessed the skills and timing for comedic acting. And they were supported by a top notch cast that included Stephen Root, Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Gerety. And I must say that I loved the way Clooney and his production staff captured the mid 1920s America, right down to the chaotic world of football – professional and college.

However, ”LEATHERHEADS” is not perfect. The Chicago sequence leading up to the big game between the Duluth and Chicago nearly dragged the film. And I found the ending vague and lacking any real closure over Dodge, Lexie and Carter’s future. And that perfect capture of the 1920s? Well, it was not completely perfect. I have to blame Renee Zellweger’s hairstyle for this. It was fine when she had her hair pinned. But she spent at least two-thirds of the film wearing her hair in a shoulder-length bob. Is it any wonder I had originally believed this film was set in the early-to-mid 1930s?

It is a shame that ”LEATHERHEADS” did not prove to be a hit. It really is an enjoyable film. But I guess that it is the type of film that would appeal to older moviegoers who are at least in their 30s and 40s. It simply lacked the appeal for younger viewers .  Oh well. If you have not seen ”LEATHERHEADS” yet, at least give it a chance and rent it on DVD.