I saw the movie “Public Enemies” over the weekend. Like its big-screen predecessor “The Untouchables”, it traces the story of 1930s gangster-laden Chicago. John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone. The gangsters rule, the government comes in, the idealistic agents (Treasury Department or Bureau of Investigation) are assigned the task of bringing them down, they try every legitimate and legal way to “get their man”… and they fail. They always fail. Until, of course, they become gangsters themselves. Unless they themselves break the rules, they simply cannot catch the rule breakers.
One of my favorite movie lines of all time is spoken by Gene Hackman playing Agent Rupert Anderson in “Mississippi Burning”. The FBI has come to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of civil rights workers. Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) is adamant that the FBI will solve this case using its superior intelligence and modern crime-fighting techniques. He believes in the good of what they are doing, the justice of it.
But they get nowhere and in time the violence grows worse. Mounting frustration leads to a heated exchange between the two agents and Mr. Anderson finally shouts, “These people crawled out of a sewer, Mr. Ward. Maybe the gutter is the place we should be!”
And they go there. They use the same tactics of the Klan – fear and torture – and then they get them. Beat them at their own game, so to speak. It’s Hollywood. Or is it?
Does good ever really win without becoming a little evil along the way? Can justice prevail without breaking the law? Can acceptance come not disguised as tolerance? Can peace come without war?