Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Social Networking and Bank Robbery: Some Thoughts on The Town
Last night I went along with a friend to a sneak preview of The Town, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, unfortunately (to be fair he is actually watchable in this movie), but also featuring Mad Men's Jon Hamm. The premise of the film lies in the fact that Charlestown, a working class neighborhood in Boston, has the highest rate in the world of producing bank robbers. To my mind, speculating as to the cause of such a phenomenon begs one to combine Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, in which discusses gangs and the economics of drug dealing, with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Tipping Point. Outliers examines the societal features that enable those with genius and extreme talent to succeed. Tipping Point deals with what sort of social connections necessary to transmit ideas. Gladwell is mainly interested in phenomenon like hockey players in Canada, the computer revolution and Jewish lawyers, but his argument could be applied to bank robbery.
The vast majority of people growing up in a place like Charlestown do not go out and become bank robbers. That being said, there are certain features in growing up in Charlestown that can enable such life choices. Robbing banks requires a certain level of intelligence and technical expertise. Our potential bank robber needs to be intelligent enough to work through the details of a bank job plan, but be unable to get the education and social connections necessary to enter into more lucrative and physically less hazardous fields of crime such as investment fraud. Think of what might have happened to Bernie Madoff if he had never received the sorts of opportunities he did; maybe he would have been knocking over banks at the point of a gun. Once our bank robber has decided on his chosen career, he is going to need particular training of a kind not generally provided in school; things such as firearms, forensics, carjacking a getaway vehicle, video surveillance and safe-cracking. It is unlikely that one person would be able to master all of these things, which brings us to the social networking aspect of bank robbery. Robbing a bank is a team effort. Where does our bank robber find a group of other intelligent criminals, who have not gone into white collar crime, to be trusted to guard his back and not simply turn him over to the government? (Certainly not on Facebook.) The same place he went to in order to learn the trade in the first place, friends and family. A place like Charlestown can produce bank robbers because it already has the people on the ground to pass on their knowledge and form social networks to produce new generations of bank robbers.
I would have loved to see a movie that really explored these issues. Going on a spree of bank robberies could be the culmination of a story going back decades as we follow our young future criminals on their road to bank robbery. Unfortunately the movie decided to only deal with the social networking issues in passing in order to make way for, what Hollywood loves turning everything into, a love story. You see there is this pretty female witness briefly taken hostage in the film's opening robbery, who might be able to give our team of bank robbers away even though they had masks. The leader of the team (played by Ben Affleck) takes it upon himself sniff out what she might know and promptly falls in love with her, setting up all sorts of obvious complications. This plotline does culminate in one useful line. When the girl confronts Ben Affleck about the truth and asks him why she should believe him, he responds: "because you are not going to like what I am going to tell you." As a historian, this is a central foundation of how we evaluate information. You can gauge the truth based on how damaging it is to the speaker; incrimination equals truth.
Not that this is a bad film. On technical grounds the film performs well; it is well written, directed, shot and acted. There is plenty of action and good laugh lines, particularly with the sequence when they hold up an armored vehicle with assault rifles and nun's costumes. I defiantly enjoyed watching the movie and do recommend it.