Like most true stories translated to the screen, the facts as far as characterization, times, dates, names, and places may either be "adjusted" or "dramatized" to make the film more entertaining. Select examples:
1. The scene where John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) meets FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in prison and says, "Well, if it isn't the man who got Pretty Boy Floyd!" In real life, Pretty Boy Floyd died on October 22nd, 1934, three months after Dillinger died. Also, he was shot in an open field by a farmhouse in Clarkson, Ohio, not in an apple orchard, and Melvin Purvis was one of only several FBI agents present. Exactly what happened is unclear, since there are three different official accounts. (a) The FBI account on the death says that Floyd was gunned down when he drew a .45-caliber pistol while climbing out of a car and said "I'm done for. You've hit me twice," as he died. (b) In 1979, retired East Liverpool police captain Chester Smith claimed he had shot and wounded Floyd once, then shot him two more times and disarmed him. Purvis then ordered Smith away from Floyd and briefly questioned him, then ordered agent Herman Hollis (later killed by Baby Face Nelson in November) to kill Floyd, and Hollis shot Floyd with a sub-machine-gun at point blank range. This is the most controversial account since it suggests that Floyd was executed without the benefit of judge or jury. (c) An account from another FBI agent present at Floyd's death disputed the above claim, saying that the East Liverpool police only arrived after Floyd had been wounded.
2. None of the Dillinger gang was killed during the shootout at Little Bohemia Lodge. Although Nelson's "give it to you high and low" line appears to be accurate, Nelson was not gunned down by Purvis. In reality, Nelson was killed on November 27th, 1934, four months after Dillinger died, in a running shootout with Agents Herman Hollis and Samuel Cowley, both of whom were killed by Nelson's Thompson sub-machine-gun. However, much like the movie Nelson, the real Nelson failed to fall right away despite being being shot all over his body, probably as a result of adrenaline. Homer Van Meter died in a police ambush in St. Paul a few weeks after Dillinger died. It Although Red Hamilton did die shortly after Little Bohemia, he did not die on the night of the shootout. Rather, he was mortally wounded in a gunfight the next morning in Hastings, Minnesota, and died a few days later. Dillinger and members of the Barker gang helped bury his body.
3. Billie Frechette was arrested before the Little Bohemia shootout, not after.
4. One of the First Dillinger Gang's associates, Russell Clark, is absent, substituted by Homer Van Meter.
5. The manhunt for the first Dillinger gang did not involve the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) (predecessor to the FBI) in any way. The most the BOI/FBI did was attend several briefings, so jurisdiction for the manhunt fell to local police. Only once Dillinger crossed the Indiana/Illinois state border in Sheriff Lillian Holley's stolen car after escaping Crown Point did he commit a federal crime, enabling the BOI/FBI to pursue him.
6. The running shootout at the opening jailbreak didn't happen. For one thing, Dillinger was not present at all at the breakout, because he was imprisoned in Lima, Ohio at the time, ironically awaiting trial for a string of bank robberies he committed across Indiana and Ohio while raising money to smuggle the escape guns into the prison to bust out his confederates.
However, many facts are indeed true. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) did carve a wooden gun in his cell and using it, he tricked a guard into opening his cell, then used it to round up the other guards and lock them in his cell. Then Dillinger stole Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, embarrassing her and the town, and traveled to Chicago. The scene is made more accurate by using the actual jail and appearing to use an actual court transcript to supply the dialogue at Dillinger's arraignment hearing, including Sheriff Holley's statement about Crown Point being inescapable, later proven to be anything but that by Dillinger's escape.
Dillinger was also killed after Clark Gable's film Manhattan Melodrama (1934) outside the Biograph theater. Although a lookalike was used for the interior, the exterior of the Biograph scene was filmed on location, and Dillinger dies exactly where he really did die. He was accompanied by Polly Hamilton and Anna Sage, who tipped off the police (although she was called "The Lady in Red", she was wearing an orange skirt and white blouse as portrayed, which appeared red in the theater lights; contrary to legend). Even the shots killing Dillinger are accurate, five shots—one from the back entering the back of his head, tearing through his brain and vertebrae, severing his spinal cord, and exiting beneath his right eye. The "Little Bohemia" raid was actually shot on location at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, and you can still find bullet holes in the rooms, and shell casings from the ambush around the lodge.
The circumstances of the bank robberies are somewhat correct, although the actual events differ: 1. In the Racine robbery, Van Meter ambushes the police outside the bank while serving as lookout, using one of them as a human shield as he sprays the police car with bullets. According to Bryan Borrough's book, of which this filmed is based off of, the police were surprised in the lobby, as the bank had suffered a number of false alarms. Additionally, Van Meter was not present for Dillinger's late 1933 bank robberies, although they met during their stints in Indiana's Pendleton Reformatory. However, Van Meter did help Dillinger case one of the police station armories that Dillinger's gang later raided. But at the time of these first robberies, Van Meter was a member of Nelson's gang. The part in the getaway where Dillinger hands a female hostage his coat is based on eyewitness accounts from the bank manager.
2. The scene in Sioux Falls where Nelson guns down a motorcycle cop with a machine gun and says, "I got one!", is accurate. However, Dillinger did not get shot in the shoulder during this robbery. The shoulder wound happened the following week during a bank robbery in Mason City, Iowa. Also, no big shootout happened in the Sioux Falls Robbery, which took place three days after Dillinger escaped from Crown Point. A shootout, however, did happen in a June 30th, 1934 robbery committed by Dillinger, Nelson, Van Meter, and two unidentified individuals in South Bend, Indiana.