The tale of the Barefoot Bandit in today’s Times (currently locked behind a paywall, otherwise I would of course have encouraged you to click here) is, on the surface, a ripping yarn, a boy’s own adventure. A seventeen-year-old escapes juvenile detention and goes on the run across America for two years: stealing cars and yachts and using them to cross America; caught in people’s houses, naked, before escaping into the woods; leaving semi-anonymous donations to animal charities. The Barefoot Bandit, so called because a footprint was found at the scene of one of his thefts, has now apparently topped it all by stealing a plane and crash-landing it in the Bahamas. Hmmm.
If all this sounds too good to be true, that’s surely because it is; this tale strikes me as a PR scam. Face it, even the Times, revelling in every second of the story, can’t help but pitch it as if it’s a high concept movie: “Part Huckleberry Finn, part Catch Me if You Can” is how they describe the Barefoot Bandit’s escapades, whilst the inevitable Facebook Fan Page describes him as “Western Washington’s new Jesse James (without the murders)”.
The crash landing of the plane is a stunt too far, however, as is the gobsmacked but supportive mother, who apparently said: “I hope to hell he stole those airplanes – I would be so proud!” If there isn’t a canny movie publicist brewing up a long-term publicity campaign for a blockbuster film somewhere behind the scenes, I’d be amazed.
If you ask me, someone’s taken the sort of stunts Harry Reichenbach used to pull about 95 years ago and run with them. Take Reichenbach’s campaign for The Virgin of Stamboul, just after World War One, which I wrote about in detail in The Fame Formula. To promote the movie, about a runaway bride who flees Istanbul, Reichenbach hired a bunch of Turkish waiters and dressed them as a sheik and his entourage. He then announced to the press that said ‘sheik’ had come to America to find his runaway bride, the virgin of Stamboul, and would appreciate the American public’s help finding her in New York.
There followed a feeding frenzy in the press, who drank up the story and portrayed it in lavish detail to an equally attentive public. Only one journalist noticed the ‘sheik’s’ frayed cuffs and picked apart the story to find it wasn’t true – but by that point no one else in the press or the public cared. It was exposed as a hoax and still people lapped up every carefully staged detail. Then, when the movie came out a few weeks later, they went to see it in their droves.
All this resonates deeply with the Barefoot Bandit’s alleged two-year-long spree of relatively harmless crime. It’s like the Virgin of Stamboul campaign, being played under deeper cover to hide the frayed cuffs a little better. There’s the mother, who wants him to flee the States and continue his spree abroad; the cross and concerned FBI special agent who worries that people are making a hero of the Bandit; the Bandit himself, a geeky looking everykid, who finds time to be charitable even as he rips of aeroplanes, but who only really hurts the insurance companies. These characters, and the harmless crimes, are so generic-yet-quirky that major stars would surely be knocking over each other to play them.
There have to be some frayed cuffs somewhere in the Bandit’s story; there’s nothing new under the sun after all and in these Twitter-obsessed times, where copy permanently needs to be filed two minutes ago, this is the sort of story that could run and run. The article reads like a movie synopsis for a family adventure movie that will doubtless have an inspiring moral tacked on at the end, and that’s probably what it is. It’s just that the journalists don’t have time to check their facts anymore.
Not that it really matters if the Bandit’s story is fact or fiction, just so long as you want to see the film version, coming in 3D to a multiplex near you soon…