Public Enemies (dir: Michael Mann)
An honest to goodness grown-up epic in the season of adolescent fantasies and overpriced empty action spectacles, Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s take on the gangster glory days of the depression, when the most flamboyant and notorious bank robbers became the outlaw heroes of the day. That makes Johnny Depp great casting as John Dillinger, whose spree of daylight bank robberies and daring getaways between May 1933 (when he was paroled after serving an almost nine-year prison stretch for armed robbery) and July 1934 got him branded “Public Enemy Number 1” by the FBI and made him a folk hero to many Americans.
Mann plays on that mystique in Public Enemies. Depp’s Dillinger is a charmer and a cagey media player. He targets banks not just because that’s where the money is, but because in the depths of the Depression, many dispossessed Americans saw banks as the enemy and Dillinger as a kind of Robin Hood figure getting some back for them. And while he has no compunctions about taking civilian hostages as human shields, he acts more like a host than a kidnapper, sharing jokes with his temporary captives and turning their ordeal into an adventure that they’ll be able to tell the papers and newsreels. Depp gives Dillinger a natural geniality born of confidence and courage that borders on thrill-seeking. He seems to thrive on the charge of executing a heist, whether it be a bank or a prison break. He’s cool and cagey, keeping his emotions in check on the job but for a cocky little grin that he lets slip when things are going his way, while off the job he lets himself fall for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful hat check girl that becomes the love of his outlaw life.
The film opens on a carefully executed prison break masterminded and personally guided by Dillinger. He’s never rushed and won’t even break into a run when making for the getaway car, but as the guards fire on them, Dillinger spins, digs in and blasts back with a spray of machine gun fire as if he’s marking his territory. Unnecessary but satisfying. In contrast the vibrant and charming Dillinger is his FBI counterpart Melvin Purvis. As played by Christian Bale, he’s the loyal officer in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, all tight restraint and modest behavior, just as cool as Dillinger and far more patient. He gets his introduction chasing Pretty Boy Floyd through the rural countryside into an orchard. As Floyd huffs in a panicked escape, Purvis stops to set himself and take careful aim with his precision rifle, never rushing, never giving in to emotion. And as Floyd lies bleeding, there no gloating, no arrogance, just a respectful silence as he watches solemnly over the dying man. His entire being is devoted to the FBI and Mann’s screenplay (co-written with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) doesn’t give him a life outside of his job. In the battle of wills, Purvis may be stronger but Dillinger is far more fun to watch.
Mann is a director who loves to dissect the details of men at work and admire the professionalism of his characters in action, whether it’s the mechanics of a successful prison break or the systematic efforts of Purvis and his squad to patiently gather evidence and tail suspects until he pieces enough together to find his man. This is Mann’s world to be sure, for every missed opportunity or thwarted engagement is the result of someone failing to follow the plan. As Dillinger is forced to work with less and less reliable characters (teaming up with sociopath Baby Face Nelson is surely one of his worst decisions), you can see his reign at the top unraveling. Mann’s focus is intensified by his continued use of digital cameras, which gives the film a crispness that sometimes feels out of sorts with the era but also gives it a clarity that seems to carve the characters out of the darkness. (The screening I attended had distracting graininess to a few scenes and bright bursts of light that would blow out on the screen like cheap video; I haven’t found similar problems mentioned in other reviews so I’ll chalk it up to bad projection.)
Public Enemies is a thinking man’s gangster film, less about thrills than the mechanics of Dillinger’s heists and Purvis’ investigation, which he executes with his usual precision. But it’s also about end of the gangster era, shut down not just by the efforts of the FBI but the increasing power of the mob syndicate as it leaves violent crime behind for the less public activities like gambling. Dillinger and his cohorts are bad for business. Mann doesn’t pretend that Dillinger is any kind of hero. He’s a ruthless bank robber who thrives on violent crime, but he’s genuinely loyal to his partners and brave to the point of recklessness. He makes a show of never robbing the civilians in the banks and only taking money from the vaults and the tellers cages and makes a point of not hurting civilians. It’s all part of cultivating his image, to be sure, something he carefully grooms by playing to the media and to the public’s hunger for anti-heroes, but it gives him a gravitas that the other machine gun punks of the era lack. In the era of live fast, die young and leave a bullet-riddled corpse, he is the gangster rock star, a machine gun-toting thug as pin-up acting out the anger that everyday Americans feel. His genius was tapping into those feelings. His downfall was his arrogance in thinking it could go on forever.
Also reviewed at the Seattle PostGlobe.