These two guys made up their mind: get away, or go down at the scene.
—Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams (1997)
On the morning of 28 February 1997, the LAPD had no idea what they were in for. Still, according to 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout, FX’s newest original movie, the cops were ready for the conflagration that was visited upon them. This even though they were wholly outgunned by two bank robbers, such that, for 44 minutes on that sunny Friday morning, the LAPD appeared on live television in dire straits, trying to figure out how to save the customers and employees trapped inside.
The North Hollywood Shootout
Michael Madsen, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Livingston, Oleg Taktarov, Andrew Bryniarski
Regular airtime: 1 June 2003, 8pm ET
Written by Tim Metcalfe and directed by Yves Simoneau, the movie begins with brief, seemingly intimate introductions to the designated major players. The cops prepare for their day: following a sleepless night owing to a loud, smoky party next door, based-on-a-true-guy Detective Frank McGregor (Michael Madsen) kisses his pregnant wife goodbye; S.W.A.T. officer Donnie Anderson (Ron Livingston) cleans his gun and remembers his honorable cop dad; and upright, compassionate uniform Henry Dee (Mario Van Peebles) prays for guidance (“Lord, help me to do the right thing out there”).
As Frank observes, his work in the Robbery Homicide Division means he’s working with the “best of the best.” “When you’re a cop,” he notes, “You have to make split second decisions. It’s kind of like being on trial every day.” And oh yes, contrary to popular supposition, cops’ lives aren’t much like the movies: unlike the detectives in Heat, L.A. Confidential, and Dragnet, they’re juggling “75 cases all at once.” Police work is dangerous but rewarding, you don’t do it for the money, but for some personal and social good.
By contrast, the robbers have no good in mind. At all. As the film sets up these eminently well-intentioned cops, it intercuts shots of the villains, also preparing for their day. They watch cartoons. They load up their weapons—AK-47s, semiautomatic, a few smoke grenades, and other explosives. They don Kevlar vests, pants, and headgear (worn under black ski masks), and bring along over 2,600 rounds of ammunition, as will be counted up by crime scene investigators after the fact. Frank fills in some of the details on these guys as they sweat and huff-and-puff in their apartment: they come to this event with something of a reputation. Nicknamed the High Incident Bandits, they were previously known for their “takeover style”—they’d walk into a bank heavily armed, grab up the money, and escape quickly. According to Frank, they’d already stolen some $2 million by the time they hit the Van Nuys Bank of America.
Also according to Frank, “These guys were media junkies. They’d be robbing banks in the morning and watching themselves on tv in the afternoon.” This seems important to know, though none of the cops are inclined to discuss details of the perpetrators’ history or likely behaviors once the shooting starts (Frank does mention to one cop on the scene that “They’re gonna come out heavy”). Instead, they scramble, mostly in slow motion, in order to showcase the photogenic mayhem.
Indeed, apart from Frank’s occasional commentary, 44 Minutes spends precious little time contemplating the robbers’ backgrounds or motives. They appear here as evil embodied—hulking, sweating, bellowing at one another. Based on the real life robbers—Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu—these fictionalized monsters are abject, nameless objects (though they are played with some gusto by Andrew Bryniarski and Oleg Taktarov). Fully armed, they sit in their car in the bank’s parking lot, waiting for the armored truck that is their original target (the truck never shows up, so they change plans, seemingly on a whim: “Do the bank!”). As they wait, sweating in the sun, the Larry character teases the Emil character about his Romanian background, to which the Emil character responds, vehemently, “I’m an American. I like the Corvettes and the Mexican girls.”
As this gruntish exchange suggests, the robbers look cruder and meaner by the second. By the time they emerge from the car and enter the bank, they are wholly monstrified. And the film leaves them this way, dreadful, bulky cutouts, and focuses instead on the cops’ as they attempt to deal with the assault. This approach omits details and ambiguities related to the origins or ramifications of this calamitous morning.
Still, some of the facts emerge in the fiction: where the villains are vastly over-prepared, the cops come sorely under-prepared, despite their numbers (some 200 arrive at the scene). They come without enough firepower, without knowledge of how many bandits are in the bank, without enough guns. The legal and cultural fallout of the crime had to do with just how much firepower the cops should be carrying, if outlaws find it so easy to purchase AK-47s at gun shows. The cops do send a couple of uniforms go to a nearby gun store to purchase extra firepower, but arrive back on the scene too late, as the purchase is authorized quite late during the course of events.
The media trucks and choppers were on the scene almost immediately, such that the siege appeared on live tv almost in its entirety. This in itself is something of an issue—as the robbers start shooting at one news helicopter and as the cops appear unable to contain onlookers (some hit by the robbers’ gunfire, though the day ends with only the robbers dying) or, more interestingly, reporters. Indeed, journalists start raising questions on the spot, by wondering how the cops could come so ill-equipped and comparing the shootout to the excessive explosiveness of Heat, the very film to which Frank has preemptively referred in his opening comments.
The point appears to be that the “real” thing is much less readable and much less predictable than the Hollywood version. Except that this film is caught between; it’s part emulating big-budget cop movies, and part emulating the grimmest sort of “reality tv.” Michael Mann’s film offered legible slow motion, grandly choreographed chaos. The events of 28 February 1997 were brutal and barely comprehensible in the unnerving footage from that day. Simoneau and director of photography David Franco conjure a middling representation: bullets fly windows burst into a million shards; bank employees and customers’ reaction shots emphasize their sense of terror; traffic backs up; a neighbor steps onto his balcony to videotape the events; and cops dash about, set up a temporary HQ in a nearby store, and bark orders over their radios.
This bedlam seems appropriate, but the film neatens it up with narrative, as it must. To this end, it offers “characters” (or rather, figures you see more than once) with whom you might identify: the dog-walking girl who calls in the robbery on her cell phone appears on camera several times before she does so; Henry (who has earlier tried to save a gang-leaning kid by showing him crime scene photos and buying him a burrito) is badly wounded and bleeding nearly to death in the parking lot, as his female partner holds back tears and tells him to “Hold on!”; Frank calls wifey to tell her he’s all right, then dashes into the fray to commandeer a cop car and pick up Henry.
The cops are heroic (and no doubt, they were at the time). As Frank offers by way of resolution: “In 44 minutes of sheer terror, not a single officer ran away. I think that means something.” The movie gives you a little nudge as to what that meaning might be: this was an incident that, after the Rodney King and OJ trials, restored some public trust in the LAPD. A coda shows grateful women bringing cookies to their local station and children holding up “We [HEART] LAPD” banners.
As nice as this outcome seems, it leaves out some (brief) controversy concerning the shootout, not only over the outgunning, but also over the fact that, after Phillips shot himself, the cops shot down and left Matasareanu to bleed to death over some 30 minutes, not calling an ambulance because (depending on whom you read) their focus was on civilians who were less severely wounded, and they were unsure that the gunman wasn’t booby-trapped. This led to a lawsuit filed on behalf of his children. However you feel about this turn of events, leaving it out completely is only one of many instances where 44 Minutes simplifies rather than complicates the horrors of that day in North Hollywood.