Michael Mann is a director who doesn’t do anything by halves. He’s a storyteller who knows exactly what he likes and returns to those themes again and again; skilled professionals compelled to act, be it in the name good or evil; forbidden love; architecture and cityscapes; and the crisp visceral snap of digital video. Public Enemies, the tale of folk hero bank robber John Dillenger, is a film that brings together all of the above and more, but with a twist. This is not a period pastiche or a well-researched mock-up. Armed with light, portable, high definition cameras, Mann brings depression era America to life with highly mobile faux-documentary styling that sparks with a gloss and a sheen that positively pops off the screen.
Of course Mann has played cops and robbers before, and with 1995’s underworld epic Heat he brought together the two finest actors of their generation in Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Now with the casting of Johnny Depp as 1930’s Robin Hood opposite Christian Bale as the G-man Melvin Purvis tasked with his capture, you could make the argument that he has gone and done it again. But this is far from the dual character study of emotionally closed off mirrors mutually consumed by their work, though trace elements remain. Indeed Depp’s Dillenger is not a man to be found doing thrill-seeker liquor store hold-ups with a born to lose tattoo on his chest. Whether it be orchestrating a daring prison break from the outside in or emptying a bank vault and high-tailing it across state lines in a suped-up Sedan, Dillenger is focused, he is capable and he sticks to a code; one minutes forty seconds flat to go through a bank and never work with anyone who is desperate.
But Dillenger is not a man to walk away when he feels the heat around the corner, and his ten-week crime spree that captured a disaffected nation’s imagination was characterized by a voracious lust for life; the finest food, most elegant threads, fast cars, and beautiful women, overlaid with the energetic, rock and roll twang of electric guitar. Public Enemies is less a period piece and more a zeitgeist film at the center of which is an impossible, all consuming romance between Dillenger and longtime squeeze Billy Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the desperation of which will ultimately spell his doom. A rich, vibrant rendering of a nation in flux; a poor and hungry people identifying with an alluring hero who took from people that took from them; life imitating art imitating life with screen gangsters employing newspaper articles as a means of research, while real life hoodlums entertain one another with impressions of James Cagney; The press hanging on Dillenger’s every word after an arrest signaling the beginning of the fame game; the landmark formation of a federal task force and with it the retreat by organized crime from the glamor of the limelight. Meanwhile the media’s elevation and aggrandizement allows Dillenger to hide in plain sight in crowded movie theaters while his picture flashes on screen accompanied by the warning: “He could be sitting in your row.”
In the formation of his newly minted Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) understands the power of public opinion, leading the nation’s first crusade on crime with Dillenger public enemy number one. But hampered by a lack of manpower and an absence of protocol, Special Agent Purvis is no Vincent Hanna. In another trademark performance of brooding intensity Bale embodies a fastidious man, driven and consumed by details. Purvis has the smarts but not the experience to head up a manhunt so vast and expansive. Impulsive and impatient he leads a botched midnight assault on a woodland safehouse that erupts into a brutal, bloody shootout before giving way to a heart-stopping chase through the darkness illuminated only by moonlight and muzzle flash.
Dillenger too understands the power of image and while his compatriots Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) were more brutal and more prolific, they were never as careful not to piss off or frighten the ordinary folk they relied on to look the other way in restaurants or on the street. But Public Enemies never gets inside Dillenger’s head, because that’s not where Mann’s interest lies. Mann is after the myth that the public adored and the FBI found themselves chasing. Dillenger remains an enigma, his story an elegy. His ethereal, larger than life persona personified by an eerie silent stroll through the offices of a Chicago police station where he casually enquires to the task force assigned to hunt him as to the score of the ball game on the radio while his mugshots hang mere inches away. We witness his passions and we partake in his pleasures, but he remains an unknown. But as he handily explains to a curious Frechette as he introduces himself: “My name is John Dillenger. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whisky, and you. What else is there to know?”
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Graham, Stephen Dorff, James Russo, Branka Katic
Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 143 Minutes