Bryan Burrough

Inside Media: Public Enemies vs. the FBI

June 27, 2009

Guest: Bryan Burrough

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

In "Public Enemies," which hits theaters in July, actor Johnny Depp portrays notorious bank robber John Dillinger, whose criminal escapades made headlines around the world.

Dillinger was bigger than other Depression Era "public enemies," according to Bryan Burrough, whose book is the source for the movie.

"He was so big that he was in the papers every day," said Burrough.

During the intense crime wave of the 1930s, Dillinger was at the top of the FBI’s "Big Five" list of criminals, which included Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.

Burrough said that Dillinger exuded natural charisma, was a bit of a daredevil (staging two jail breaks) and was good at what he did — so much so that he managed to elude the FBI for more than a year.

Dillinger also became immensely popular in newsreels, reportedly ranking behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh, in terms of notoriety. But others, such as Nelson, Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, were the ones embraced by popular culture.

"They all got great nicknames and Oscar-winning movies made about them," Burrough said.

For the former Wall Street Journal reporter, the four years he spent writing the book "was a labor of love." He also had a special connection to the subject matter: he grew up listening to his grandfather’s tales about the gangsters of the Great Depression.

Comparing his book to the movie, Burrough said that Hollywood does take creative license, but "it comes pretty close to the facts." Burrough even plays a reporter in the movie in a blink-and-miss-it scene.

Overall, Burrough described Dillinger as the type of criminal who believed in his own PR.

"In his mind, if he was going to be a bank robber, then he wanted to be the type that people were rooting for."

Burrough signed copies of his book after the program.

"Inside Media" is produced by the Newseum and is open to all visitors. Seating is on a space-available basis.

Related link: 75 Years After Death, Dillinger Still Captures Headlines

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