History Channel // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // November 14th, 2009
The true story behind John Dillinger's 1930s crime spree.
Watching the story of the 18 months between 1933 and 1934 during which such famous outlaws as John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson is like taking a trip to another planet. The world of criminology was so radically different then that it's impossible to imagine by today's standards. Imagine a time when it was possible for criminals, even famous ones, to evade capture by simply relocating to a different state, or even a different county. Imagine how easy it would be to evade capture when there is no national fingerprint, DNA, ballistics, or photography database. Combine that with a crop of criminals who exploited these advantages to commit some of the most famous crimes of the 20th century, sometimes even working together, and you have a time period unlike any we could possibly imagine.
Crime Wave does a good job of explaining how these criminals terrorized the nation during this one particular period. Actually, terrorized is the wrong word-how about thrilled? One of the points made by the show is that these criminals became, in many ways, the biggest celebrities of their day, even more famous than most movie stars. Much of that was because, at the height of the Great Depression, their victims were primarily the most reviled of private citizens: bankers. Consequently, they became amongst the first modern media stars, chronicled in endless newspaper articles and newsreels. Several of the robbers' most spectacular crimes are reenacted, and it becomes apparent that the outlaws were surprisingly media-savvy as well. Dillinger, for instance, made it a point to refuse money from patrons of the bank he robbed, telling them, "I only want the bank's money, not yours." Similarly, Machine Gun Kelly, despite his fearsome nickname, was actually a college-educated bootlegger who rarely used guns; his nickname was invented by his publicity-hungry wife to ensure he would be mentioned in the newspapers. For all the gunplay and action (depicted in reenactments that are not quite as cheesy as History reenactments usually are), it's the little details like these that make this an informative and entertaining experience.
The other part of the story is the rise of the FBI. Here, the show fumbles a bit. It does explain how the bureau's shaky beginnings and nebulous mandate initially frustrated its new young director, J. Edgar Hoover. The show in particular describes a disastrous shootout between the FBI and Dillinger and Nelson that led to the outlaws' escape and the death of an innocent bystander. It makes the point that Hoover had to fight to get the FBI the authority and equipment to deal with interstate crime. However, the show doesn't quite explain how Hoover managed to build the FBI into the powerhouse it became. Much is made of the massive PR coup Hoover scored when the Bureau, under the direction of Hoover's deputy Melvin Purvis, finally managed to take out Dillinger. It doesn't really explain, though, how the FBI turned its reputation around so quickly and how Hoover fought his battles. This part of the story is dealt with in more detail in Bryan Burrough's superb book Public Enemies, which served as the basis for this show (Burrough himself is one of the interviewees), but here it's just glossed over a bit too quickly. Still, apart from that minor lapse, this is a generally solid History DVD.
By contrast, the extra program is much more problematic. An episode of Biography devoted to Bonnie and Clyde, it tends to wallow a bit much in romanticism. Much of the reason is that the show tends to quote excessively from Bonnie and Clyde's letters and relies heavily on interviews with members of their families, so it goes overboard in shortchanging their actual criminal exploits in favor of presenting them as a besotted young couple. Judging by this show, you'd never know that Clyde Barrow was an infamously cold-blooded killer, or that the two were responsible for some of the most violent robberies and kidnappings of their time. It's nowhere near as informative as it could have been, although the additional perspectives are admittedly unusual.
Nonetheless, although Crime Wave doesn't go into quite as much depth as it could have in a couple of spots, it's generally one of the better DVDs History has put out in a while. Use it as a good primer if you've always wondered about these criminals and their exploits, and then move on to a more comprehensive account. Even if you already know these stories in depth, though, the show is entertaining enough that you won't be bored. The presentation is typical History-16:9-non-anamorphic transfer, Dolby stereo track, both adequate-so it's at least worth a look for anyone curious about this story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode
* IMDb: Crime Wave
* IMDb: Biography: Bonnie & Clyde