Public Enemies (2009)

Published: Apr 5, 2010 |Updated: Apr 5, 2010


Would you rather be a charming and vibrant criminal who never uses his guns, or a boring and blunt law enforcement officer? That is the choice presented to us in this gangster drama. John Dillinger is a successful bank robber who shares a sense of brotherhood with his friends and attracts a gorgeous woman into his life. What more could a man ask for? This is a story about the importance of putting your morality first and of recognizing that without integrating our most basic drives we have no fuel to move forward.

Jump straight to the powerful ideas

Production year
Michael Mann
Male actors
Johnny DeppChristian BaleBilly Crudup

General spoiler alert!

» Integrate the lower to unleash the higher

Set in the 1930s, Public Enemies tells the true story of the last few years of gangster and serial bank robber John Dillinger. Initially, we’re shown how successful Dillinger is at his profession, robbing banks seemingly effortlessly in Chicago, and being largely protected from the authorities through his influence and connections in the world of organized crime. He also seems to have the personality to go with such a lifestyle, being charismatic, carefree and almost sympathetic in spite of his line of work. While he doesn’t have much regard for the law, he always refrains from killing people when performing his robberies.

Charm vs morality

At a restaurant, Dillinger meets the love of his life, the beautiful and feminine Billie Frechette. Even though she knows quite well that he’s on the wrong side of the law, he has no trouble charming her into going out with him, which illustrates nicely that sexual attraction does not recognize morality. Dillinger’s presence, confidence and charisma easily pull the good-looking Billie into his life, without him needing to be a good, dependable or moral man. Dillinger also has has an air about him which is free from the stiffness so common in many other men, and he has no trouble dancing with a woman or authentically letting her know that she is beautiful. Obviously, Frechette’s decision to let herself flow with the attraction she feels, tells us something about her own moral code. But the lesson here is that the sexual attraction itself is not related to moral standards. Attraction is largely controlled by old parts of our brain, not the newer parts related to thinking and societal norms.

So what does Dillinger’s success with miss Frechette teach us? That presence, confidence and charisma are more important than morality and having a positive impact on the world? Of course not. The latter factors are much more important than the former ones. However, as it were, we don’t have to choose between presence and morality; we can have both. What Dillinger’s success with women teaches us more than anything is that reintegrating the bodily, emotional and instinctual side of your being is crucial, if you want to become a man with full access to your manhood. Integrating and having access to the lower parts of yourself, will supercharge your higher parts, and provide you with the energy needed to achieve the positive impact on the world that you know is possible. On the other hand, having access to your lower parts, while having inconsistent or incomplete access to our higher parts, is a recipe for disaster-as shown by the unfolding of Dillinger’s story.

Masculine culture and violence

The casual lifestyle of our charming criminal changes abruptly when J. Edgar Hoover - head of the newly formed FBI - decides that Dillinger is a public enemy who is to be tracked down and incarcerated. The FBI presents a new type of authority in Dillinger’s world; one that cannot be bribed or controlled by having powerful connections in the world of organized crime. Consequently, from this point on Dillinger is a hunted man, and the person in charge of the manhunt is FBI agent Melvis Purvis, an ambitious and talented agent who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. With him he has a crew of young men who are eager to serve their country within this new organization-young men who have been taught that a real man uses his power for positive purposes and to protect other people, especially women and children.

Dillinger may be a person for whom we feel a lot of sympathy, since he is such a likeable person. He avoids killing people, he has a good sense of humor and he is loyal to his friends (he will even risk his life to protect a friend). There is also a vulnerability in his appearance, and you can sense that he is connected to his heart. However, at the end of the day he is still a criminal, and this very fact causes violence and gets people killed. At one point in the story, when Dillinger and a gang of his peers are on the run after a bank robbery, FBI agent Purvis and his companions manage to track them down to a hotel. The resulting shootout leads to the death of several innocent civilians who never would have died had it not been for our charismatic hero and his fellow bank robbers. So while Dillinger is likely too kindhearted to kill civilians in cold blood, the actions that stem from his lack of morality lead to the loss of innocent lives.

In our day and age, you can sometimes come across feminist analyses claiming that masculine culture is about violence, especially towards women, and that this state of affairs is appalling. However, that kind of analysis is deeply flawed. As demonstrated by the creation of the FBI, masculine culture is not about violence, it is about controlling random violence by using precise force and power where it is needed. Masculine culture is about controlling men such as Dillinger, who will not adapt to the basic rules needed for people to co-exist in a society. On a personal level, Dillinger may be kinder and more personable than the stiff FBI agents chasing him, but on an impersonal, societal level he is a constant threat to his fellow citizens.

All men are born with the ability to have a strong impact on the world, some would even say that men are born with the desire to have an impact on the world. Masculine culture has always been about older men teaching younger men to use their power for positive purposes, whether in a tribe, at a farm or at a modern day soccer practise. Our lower parts (the instinctual animal side) are with us from the day we are born, but what is passed on from man to man through history is the morality, the higher parts, that ultimately turn us into mature men. Violence has decreased signicantly since the dawn of humanity, and it is through older men teaching younger men about boundaries and ethics that this has been achieved.

Another example of male culture being about curbing violence--and especially curbing violence towards women--is what happens when Billie is captured by the police. Frustrated by Dillinger still being at large--and Billie refusing to talk--one of the FBI interrogators starts using physical violence to coerce her into revealing what she knows about Dillinger’s whereabouts. Had Billie been a man, this kind of questioning would have been more or less standard procedure to make sure that all information about a public enemy was obtained. But the rules are very different for a woman. When it is discovered what the interrogator is doing, he is stopped in a violent fashion by other men, and taken off the case. Having broken the masculine code not to use violence against a woman, he is no longer respected by his peers, and may live to see his career suffer as a result.

The feminist teachings that are attacking masculine culture are therefore incorrect in their assumptions. While feminists are very likely authentically disappointed that some men still hit women, they are wrong to accuse masculine culture of being the culprit here. As men, we know deep down in our hearts that men who hit women-or men who use any kind of random violence-are not doing it because of some masculine code; in fact, they are breaking the code. The ability to use physical violence is inherent in all humans, and perhaps more so in men than women because of testosterone. However, as boys we’ve all been taught not to hit women and not to hit any man without good reason, meaning that masculine culture is more than anything about protecting women, and accusations to the contrary from feminists would never have arisen had they been raised as boys themselves.

Telling our story

Dillinger is in many ways the quintessential example of a man who is still a boy. He is sympathetic and kindhearted, just like an innocent boy. He is charismatic and charming, like a mischievous boy. His has a serious bad boy streak, the way an unruly teenager does. For some reason, he has resisted growing up and becoming a man who cares about ethics and the lives of others. Perhaps this is due to growing up without a father (lack of boundaries), or perhaps it comes from rebelling against a father who’s overly strict (lack of love). Regardless of his background, it is evident that he hasn’t been surrounded by conditions needed to help a boy grow into a mature man.

In postmodern societies men and manhood tend to be under attack, and the proposed solution is often to resocialize men to be more like women. However, knowing what we know about innate sex differences, chances are that it would be disastrous to adopt such a policy. Men’s inherent drives, instincts, intentions and emotionality are not identical to that of women’s, and masculine culture is in many ways a direct response to those differences. Shaping boys to become good men requires somewhat different methods than shaping girls to become good women. These fundamental insights may no longer be politically correct, but that doesn’t mean they go away.

When we attack masculine structures, we attack the very things that help boys become functional men. Now don’t get me wrong; these structures could certainly be developed, refined and improved upon. They are far from perfect. On the other hand, tearing them down would likely have serious consequences for boys, and the process is seemingly already in full swing, with boys doing much worse than girls in the educational system. Over time, we risk creating more and more boys like Dillinger, who may be charming, but ultimately are unable to function with other people in a larger context.

One of the main reasons male culture is misinterpreted, is that men tend not to talk about these things. In fact, part of male culture is that men don’t talk about it. However, unless men can stand up for the male value system we will never be able to stand up to women or feminism. What men know about boys and what boys need in order to grow up to be mature men, needs to be valued and made visible--and it is up to us men to make sure that happens. This is not to say that all boys need to be raised a certain way, and all girls a different way, but on average there are differences that cannot be ignored.


Public Enemy demonstrates, through the combined hero and villain traits of Dillinger, what happens when a man is unable to integrate the higher and lower parts of his being. Having access to the lower, instinctual, animal side of his being leads to vitality, charisma and other people being attracted to him. But the lack of a wider view of the world and how his actions affect other people, ultimately reduce Dillinger to a simple criminal. On the other hand, the stiffness of the FBI agents chasing Dillinger, are in some ways a good example of how accessing the higher parts of your being can lead to cutting of and repressing the lower parts.

As shown by Dillinger’s lack of integration between the higher and the lower parts of his being, it has always been a challenge for men to integrate our lower drives with our higher morality. Dillinger and his likes live through his lower parts, while many well adjusted men knowingly or unknowingly suppress their lower parts.

What we need as men are other men to guide us in the delicate process of honoring our most animalistic drives, while also being able to channel them in a constructive direction. Older, wiser men who can mentor us is a real treasure, but in their absence, we at least need our fellow men to help guide us in the right direction. Men who can simultaneously both love us and hold us accountable for our actions--not only one or the other--provide a precious cradle for growth and maturity.

This male process is something we need to own, and stand up for, when it is attacked by well-meaning but misguided feminists. Yes, masculine culture is very much imperfect, and in the past it has sometimes been overly strict or suppressive. But that doesn’t mean that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. However imperfect the structures created by previous generations of men, we desperately need them as a roadmap on our way to becoming mature men.

Powerful ideas from Public Enemies

  • Morality is more important than charisma.
  • Don’t settle for either charisma or morality, claim both domains by integrating your animalistic drives.
  • Violence is inherent, masculine culture aims to curb it.
  • Masculine culture may be imperfect and sometimes overly strict, but it’s better to reform it than to throw it out the window.
  • Invite men whom you trust into your life, if you are serious about your growth as a man.

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