August 23, 2009
Public Enemies (2009)
During the years of the Great Depression, a wave of criminal activity began to expand across the United States, with a rise of bank robberies, gun fights, and organized crime in general. A direct result of the difficult social and economical situations of the Depression, this period of time, from 1931 to 1935, is often called the "Public Enemy era", due to the fascination that the exploits of criminals and gangsters exerted in the American public of the time. Sensationalized by the press (and later, by cinema), the famous crimes of people such as Baby Face Nelson or Bonnie and Clyde, soon became the source of legends and popular stories. Amongst those idolized criminals, one has a special place in American popular culture due to his singular charm, successful heists, famous escapes and the great challenge he represented for the rising FBI: John Herbert Dillinger. Michael Mann's 2009 film, "Public Enemies", once again brings the legendary bank robber to the big screen, this time focusing on the attempts done by the FBI to stop public enemy number one, John Dillinger.
Set in 1933, the story of "Public Enemies" begins with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) being taken to prison by an agent. Inside jail, it is revealed that the guard is his associate Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), and the whole thing a plan to release the rest of Dillinger's gang. Things go wrong and a shootout ensues, but most of the gang manage to escape and hide in a country house, ready to plan the next bank robbery. In the meantime, agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is upgraded by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), because of Purvis' killing of famous criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). In charge of the hunt for John Dillinger, Purvis begins to reform the strategy and modernizes the methods of the investigation. While this happens, Dillinger meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a party and falls in love with her. As Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie will discover the difficulties and dangers of being part of Dillinger's life, and will be in a dangerous position in the middle of the duel between the FBI agents and John Dillinger's gang.
Written by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and director Michael Mann himself, "Public Enemies" is a crime drama based on Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34". While still a dramatized and not exactly accurate view of John Dillinger's life and times, the writers remain as faithful as possible to the enormous amount of historical data found on Burrough's book and in "Public Enemies" offer a highly detailed trip to the Great Depression years. Covering the final years of John Dillinger's career, the film focuses mainly on two themes: Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette, and Purvis' obsession with capturing Dillinger. Exploring how the ups and downs of Dillinger's criminal career affected their life together, it is the couple who gets the most exposure, giving a powerful emotional core to the film that allows to have a very human view of the legendary criminal. More concerned with Dillinger's person than with his world, in the end the story plays with the classic themes of love, death and tragedy.
As he did before in "Collateral" and "Miami Vice", director Michael Mann once again bets on digital cinema, with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, in charge of employing high-definition digital technology to recreate the Public Enemy era. The result is a clean, pristine image that gives the movie a visual look akin to documentaries. This realistic style is pretty much in tone with the intimate portrait Mann attempts to make, as "Public Enemies" often feels like a view from inside Dillinger's gang. Having as locations several of the real places where Dillinger walked and lived, is an element that also adds to this focus on historical accuracy that Mann has on the movie. All this obsessive care for accuracy may lead one to think that Mann was aiming for an objective biography of Dillinger's last days, but the result is that "Public Enemies" is at the same time a story about both the myth and the man, and how the man began to shape and live his own myth. All in all a story where Mann's mix of stunning set pieces and powerful drama can shine beautifully.
As expected, the weight of a movie like "Public Enemies", which features a group of characters lager than life, is almost completely on those who play the main characters. Leading the cast as John Dillinger is Johnny Depp, which once again delivers a fantastic performance as the iconic gangster. An actor who likes challenge, Depp makes his Dillinger completely different from the classic idea of iconic gangster from the 30s. Moving away from previous interpretations of the character, Depp makes the legendary bank robber a very real and complex person, feared and admired in that strange celebrity status that the press (and himself in a way) developed for him. As his love interest, Marion Cotillard is very effective, with a subtle and restrained performance that becomes the emotional core of the film without falling in cheap melodrama. As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale is very good as well, but has the difficult position of having a character that's pretty much underwritten, more a cardboard stereotype than a character as complex as Dillinger and Frechette.
This detail about the role of Purvis is one of the main flaws of the film, because it really feels as if something was lacking in the FBI's side. Having a poorly developed counterpart, the film feels slow and boring whenever it moves away from Dillinger's side, and it's like a missed opportunity to explore both sides of the same coin. Granted, this perhaps was to go beyond the limitations of the medium (maybe a miniseries would be more fitting) and the focus of the film, but in a way, the story feels incomplete. As expected, the use of digital cinema in "Public Enemies" generated mixed reactions. In my opinion, the result is interesting, because while Mann and Spinotti achieve several beautifully looking scenes and a high degree of detail, some look really bad. Certainly, those are the minority, but the contrast in quality between them is so high that they are pretty noticeable in the movie. Nevertheess, the use of digital cinema in a period piece like "Public Enemies" is a bold move by Mann, and while not entirely successful, the result is not bad.
An interesting experiment in form, "Public Enemies" is a fascinating crime thriller that, even when it has several flaws, still is a captivating story with the classic elements of tragedy. Perhaps shot in film would had worked better, perhaps the result would had been the same, but what's to admire in Mann's movie is his willingness to experiment, and that even when the result is not as good as expected, he still can tell stories in a great way. Probably there will never be an objective, historically accurate film about John Dillinger's life, but that's simply because the myth around him is so fascinating and so thrilling, that still captures the imagination of the audience more than 70 years after his death. And cinema is all about myths.