What We Talk About When We Talk About Al Capone
Nasty, brutish, and short. A thug and a scofflaw. This may be how most of us think of Al Capone, but in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed over the past six months, a different Al Capone has emerged: unsung hero, crying out for a re-visionary look. In a series of tweets over the last six months, he has called attention to the plight of the original Scarface, and by extension, to his own.
Maybe it was time for another look at Al Capone. For perhaps the first time, I decided it was time to heed this president’s advice. The logical place to commence such a historical re-examination? The 1987 Kevin Costner vehicle, The Untouchables.
When I began to watch, however, some questions immediately surfaced. Had Trump ever seen this film? I began to suspect he hadn’t because:
1. It stars Robert De Niro in the rare performance of a mafia don in American film that in no way glorifies the mobster. His Capone has none of the glamour of his Vito Corleone fifteen years earlier. This is no family man with some minor issues with illegality: De Niro’s Capone is reptilian, unattractive, with nothing to commend him but pure, unfettered force. And an entire city’s bureaucracy in his pocket.
2. Robert De Niro is a guy who has said, recently and in no uncertain terms “Fuck Trump.”
3. David Mamet’s script goes beyond the simple constraints of its genre (good guys vs. bad) to construct an indictment of crony capitalism itself, a system which, as we all know, is Donald Trump’s bff.
Recall that in 1987 this is the David Mamet of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, the writer of lines like, “Coffee is for closers.” Although this is a commercial studio project, his critique of late-American capitalism comes through loud and clear and gives this movie much of its verve. Snappy lines and rapid fire juxtapositions, as in the pre make the case that corporate culture itself constitutes a form of racketeering.
Robert De Niro as Al Capone: “There is violence in Chicago. But not by me and not by anyone I employ. I’ll tell you why: it’s not good business.”
CUT TO MASSIVE STREET EXPLOSION ENGINEERED BY CAPONE.
What Mamet is so brilliant at at this stage in his career is showing the violence lurking under everyday speech. And if there’s one place where the ordinary oscillates between the mundane and deranged, it’s in Trump’s twitter feed. How appropriate, then, that it’s here that he floats his original insight about Manafort being like Capone, an insight later taken up by NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Trump advocate Alan Dershowitz. And the verb “to Capone” someone (usually Trump) was born.
But perhaps I was missing something in Trump’s analogy. After all, Hollywood movies are not necessarily the most reliable source of historical information. Maybe there was some component of Capone-ness I was overlooking. And indeed, according to historian Alex von Tunzelmann, the film is “punch-drunk with inaccuracies.” Much of The Untouchables turns out to be fake news: such as the Untouchables jumping on horseback for a key scene featuring the Canadian mounties and an IRS agent wielding a shotgun. Also, it turns out, the Untouchables raiding a whiskey delivery and turning up only a box of parasols was fabricated from thin albeit visually stimulating, air.
On the other hand, many truly unbelievable elements in The Untouchables turn out to be true. According to von Tunzelmann, the famous scene where Al Capone takes a bat to someone’s head is factually correct. The truth was even more violent: in reality, Capone is thought to have bashed in three of his men with his signature bat. Whether he prefaced the blows with a lecture on how “there’s no I in team” is lost to history. In any case, the parallels to how Trump treats his cabinet members are manifold. It turns out, punch-drunk or not, there was much to be gleaned from this text.
Another unbelievable, over the top scene that turned out to be more-or-less true? The final courtroom confrontation with Capone. After he has finally been hauled in on tax evasion, Capone seems surprisingly relaxed and assured in court. It turns out this is for good reason: his people have somehow managed to buy off every single member of the jury, along with the judge (for insurance). But thanks to the quick thinking of Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, the judge is confronted and the fixed jury is switched out for another at the last minute.
In my mind, it went without saying this whole section was invented. Brian De Palma takes out all the stops here, bringing machine guns into the courtroom and throwing henchman off rooftops in vertiginous Hitchcockian slow motion. Yet, once again, despite these flourishes, this portion of the story turned out to be essentially true: the jury had indeed been bribed and was switched out immediately prior to the trial’s commencement. And Capone was in fact wrestled from the courtroom shouting obscenities and throwing punches following his guilty plea.
With the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings upon us, the message of The Untouchables becomes even more urgent. The violence lurking beneath the civic procedure has become impossible to ignore. Beneath the pretty PR talk about sensitive coaches of girls’ basketball and dad’s who hold up their end of the car pool, violence erupts. We glimpse the necessity of stifling protesting voices by any means necessary. Hand over mouth, turn up the music. The Chicago way.
by Grace Lovelace
has a PhD in literature, which she uses to teach yoga in Hermosa Beach, California. She enjoys horror films such as Don’t Look Back, In Dreams, and Hamlet. You can read her work at The Millions, Bright Lights Film Journal, and https://lovelaceredux.blogspot.com/