In Public Enemies, Michael Mann doesn’t really explore the rock-star John Dillinger, the man that struck a comforting figure for the suffering masses who regarded him as a heroic American Robin Hood. He also has little interest in the psychopathic John Dillinger, whose epic crime spree is as much notable for the lives it claimed as the banks it conquered. The occasionally vulnerable, romantic-by-virtue-of-pure-force John Dillinger is also a periphery element. Surprisingly, Mann doesn’t even seem to care much about the bank-robbing John Dillinger. No, Mann put his detail-obsessed energy towards the story of a gangster who wanted nothing more than to have a wild ride before inevitably slamming head-first into the ground; John Dillinger as meteorite.
The jailbreak that opens the movie ends with a man dragging alongside the car, Mann’s camera in Dillinger’s distressed face as his (assumed) pal expires and slides away. Any cosmic body hurtling towards the earth will constantly lose pieces to the constant and fiery friction and Dillinger loses his criminal compatriots in a similar fashion. Nearly every sequence in the movie has him leaving a few cohorts behind, dead or dying.
“We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow,” sounds great coming from Dillinger, but even that declaration twinges with self-deception and desperation. For all the fun he claims to be having, Depp’s Dillinger seems constantly plagued by the stress and melancholy of his losses. That is not to say that he is completely dour- he lights up in front of the cameras and delights in flirting with an attractive hostage. He is certainly infatuated with Marion Cotillard’s Billie, and courts her with a ferocity that very nearly crosses the line from charismatic to psychopathic. While it is never a legitimate possibility, Dillinger sees in this woman the only other other possible source of gravity that could pull him away from his fiery end. He even makes vague plans to escape the storm he has created. When we see Dillinger in a theater, hoping he is not spotted during a newsreel that entreats the audience to literally look to their right and left for him, it is clear how truly fucked Dillinger is.
Unfortunately, this potentially strong theme of tragedy is lost amidst a blaze of side-characters, undeveloped robbery sequences, and bizarre technical choices. What should be a story that piles on the tragedy and the increasing impossibility of Dillinger’s escape, is instead a messy collection of scenes, places, and people that feel as purposeless as Dillinger himself. The bank robberies feel abrupt, by-the-book, and inconsequential- even the repeated music cue gives them an air of redundancy. Only a single moment acknowledges his Robin Hood approach to bank robbery, when Dillinger tells a man that he is not after his money, “just the banks.” Had a cohort perhaps been physically taking the man’s money, with Dillinger then stopping him, then there might have been an impact. As is, with the man and the money unseen before Dillinger’s comment, even this moment feels shoehorned and empty.
The scenes of Dillinger and company escaping (they do this a lot) are often the ones with the most spark. Mann is exceedingly good at filming people shooting guns, building real tension and excitement in these set pieces. The camera work is looser and dirtier than is often necessary* but they never go so far as to be incoherent.
Somehow though, Mann never closes the gap between the set pieces, the relationships, and the themes in the film. Melvin Purvis, Hoover, and the FBI are given too much screen time to be mere specters of danger in the story, but Purvis in particular has nowhere to go. Bale does an admirable job, even showing seeds of good humor in some scenes, but that is quickly lost when his agents start getting shot. We get the idea that there is a struggle for Purvis between the results Hoover wants and the image Hoover wants, but it is never paid off in any satisfactory fashion. Instead, like so much else in the film, the struggle is mostly forgotten as the film breathlessly careens forward.
The controversial topic surrounding Public Enemies is the use of a digital film camera**. The sharp and immediate*** digitally captured image does strip away a level of comfort that actors, filmmakers, and audience are used to. The film is still filled with traditionally gorgeous shots, but there are numerous moments (seen mostly during action) where the difference becomes perceptible. Often, we feel closer to the action, swept up in it. A hundred years of refinement in camera movement is not easily discarded though, and some of the more spastically hand-held shots- without the buffer of the more traditional film appearance- simply look cheap.
These occasional dips in perceived quality would be much more forgivable- and the digital experiment itself more interesting- if the film had a solid backbone in its sound design. Instead of a solid audio platform for the film to stand on though, a piss-poor amateur-level embarrassment pours weakly from the speakers. Dialogue often sounds as if it is coming through a wall, or is lost entirely. It is not difficult to imagine Mann’s line of thinking with this decision. A rough, minimally enhanced audio style to match the similarly unconventional look of the film makes sense (in theory). The ultimate fault with this logic is that, while it could be argued that digital video provides a more realistic (if not better looking) image than film, unmodified audio does not share the same relationship with reality that celluloid does. Imperfect audio may be more raw, but it is also entirely unnatural. The many fine performances in the film are partially lost, and the the occasional “behind-the-scenes” look of the film is only exacerbated by a second-hand audio production.
If Public Enemies lacks anything, it is certainly not an abundance of spectacular acting. Depp is as great as one would expect and manages, even when the film does not, to manage all of the layers of Dillinger. Bale is shackled by the necessary and typical seriousness of his character, but there is dimension amidst the intensity. The importance of Cotillard’s Billie is inconsistent but she manages to shine even in the small scenes. When given moments of real heft towards the film’s conclusion, she is truly stellar. There are almost too many great character actors in small parts to list, though Stephen Graham’s Baby Face Nelson was a standout. The wall-to-wall quality of the performances keeps the film entertaining even at its most unfocused.
When such talent is involved in a project, disaster always brings more satisfying closure than mediocrity. Public Enemies is not a disaster, it’s merely a dissapointment. There is certainly a universe where Public Enemies is a classic gangster film, and the possibilities of such a film can be seen in what turned out. As it stands though, we have something between a blurry mess and a decent crime picture.
6 out of 10
*There must be 10 cumulative minutes of blurry walls and ceilings in this film, as the camera searches for a subject.
**That is to say, a noticeable digital film camera. Films like Superbad, Superman Returns, Click, and Fantastic Four 2 were all filmed with Panavision’s Genesis camera, which mimics film closely. The Sony EX1 and Cine Alta F23, while excellent cameras, do register a digital look.
***This is the word Mann has been using to describe it.