Television review

Television review: Truth is evasive in new ‘Bonnie & Clyde’

Bonnie Parker, the sassy blond who, with boyfriend Clyde Barrow, is cutting a swath of armed robberies, kidnappings and murders across the middle of the United States in the early days of the Great Depression, has broken into the home of a Texas newspaper reporter whose stories, she thinks, are unnecessarily factual.

“What with all the foreclosures and woes in the stock market,” she urges the reporter while toying with a pistol, “seems like people could stand a little less black-and-white truth, and a skosh more being entertained.”

That line is practically a self-description of the Bonnie & Clyde miniseries that airs simultaneously on three cable networks Sunday and Monday. The reporter, a woman named P.J. Lane, is completely fictional. So is the scene itself; neither Bonnie nor Clyde ever spoke to a reporter, at gunpoint or otherwise.

And that slang expression “skosh” – it means, roughly, “smidgen” — is derived from the Japanese word sukoshi. American GIs picked it up during their post-World War II occupation of Japan, and its first recorded usage in the United States was in 1952, two decades after the events in Bonnie & Clyde.

Literal truth has always taken a backseat to entertainment value and political point-making in the saga of Bonnie and Clyde, who, with their gang, killed at least 10 people and robbed scores of others from 1931 to 1934, when they were slaughtered in a police ambush.

The mass media of the day — newspapers, newsreels, true-detective magazines — gleefully collaborated with cops in making them larger than life. Crime writers with a political bent (or political scientists with a potboiler bent) have turned them into a symbol of populist resistance to the Depression.

And for Hollywood, they’ve been the perfect storm of sex and violence. (Understandably so; those photos cops released of Bonnie posing with a gun in her hand, a cigar in her mouth probably sent Sigmund Freud into catatonic shock.) So pervasively has Hollywood shaped their image and mythology that you probably can’t find a person in America who knows that before the 1967 film with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, the couple was actually known as Clyde and Bonnie.

This newest Bonnie & Clyde claims to be different, to stick to the facts, but it doesn’t. In many of the broad strokes, it’s more accurate, stripping the couple of any Robin Hood veneer and showing them as they were, vicious criminals whose blows were mostly not struck at predatory capitalist banks but mom-and-pop stores and gas stations.

But in its main thrust — that Clyde was an easygoing small-time thief who was manipulated and bullied into crime by the gun-crazy harpy Bonnie – the miniseries inexplicably reverts to a baseless legend propagated by lurid men’s magazines of the 1950s.

“Maybe if I hadn’t found Bonnie Parker, all I’d be known for is stealing chickens,” the fictional Clyde complains in his narration. In fact, he had committed a long string of crimes long before he met Bonnie and was sent to prison – where he committed his first murder — shortly after they began dating.

And just as Clyde was no innocent, Bonnie was no homicidal hottie. The miniseries has her wantonly killing civilians and viciously administering the coup de grace to wounded cops. The truth: While Bonnie may have fired shots during a very few of their crimes — the historical record is hotly disputed – she never hit anyone, much less killed them.

To be fair, it’s probably a little late in the game to be expecting anything but fiction on the subject of Bonnie and Clyde. (Though the participation of the History Channel, which prissily killed a miniseries on the Kennedy family a couple of years on the grounds that it wasn’t up to the network’s standards of accuracy, is profoundly ironic.) And this Bonnie & Clyde, taken on its own terms, is a perfectly entertaining gangster picture, not to mention an interesting experiment in its simultaneous propagation and subversion of feminist doctrine.

The show opens with a brief account of Clyde’s childhood, during which — after a near lethal bout with fever — he has precognitive visions of a future that includes a beautiful girl and a bloody death.

The girl — Bonnie, a beautiful waitress with dreams of Hollywood — comes along when each of them are 19. And almost immediately they start taking the first steps toward their deaths as well. Bonnie helps Clyde break out of jail, then demands to join his budding criminal career. They progress from burglaries to armed robberies, from waving guns to firing them, from accidental shootings to cold-blooded murders.

Clyde thinks he’s just helping Bonnie attain the fancy material trappings of her dreams. But as she urges him on to ever more brutal crimes and revels in the publicity, he realizes that what she really wants is a legend. “I’m just an asterisk in the story of you,” he tells her bitterly — but doesn’t stop, not even as he begins to sense that the story’s big finish is the one he saw in his vision.

If the sexual and emotional manipulation of men to make them murderers doesn’t seem exactly like a cutting-edge feminist agenda, Bonnie nonetheless considers herself nothing less than a pioneering buster of glass ceilings.

“Seems like things are really moving forward for our gender,” Bonnie tells the reporter P.J. Lane (the P stands for Patricia), “what with that Amelia Earhart fixing to fly across the Atlantic, and you in the newsroom, writing about crime, and me out there committing them.”

Holliday Grainger, who plays Bonnie, already has some experience with murderously ambitious princesses, having played serial poisoner Lucrezia Borgia on Showtime’s The Borgias, and she does this role with a kind of dreamy savagery. And Emile Hirsch ( Savages) is enjoyable as Clyde, henpecked literally to death and quite amiable about the whole thing.

Also along for the ride are William Hurt as a Texas Ranger relentlessly pursuing the couple, and Holly Hunter as Bonnie’s mom, who for the life of her can’t figure out why her daughter prefers life as a fugitive felon to slinging hash in a greasy spoon cafe. If only they could have got Tish Cyrus for the role.

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