I’ve been talking up my excitement about this movie for a while now, in this space and most everywhere else I leave tracks, so I would have to understand anyone who takes my opinion about Public Enemies with a grain of salt (or the entire shaker). I was looking forward to it like crazy and I was looking to love it, and if that has any effect on the fact that I did, I can’t be sure yet. This was only the first screening of what is likely to be many, if my history is any indication. Michael Mann is my favorite filmmaker working today, and he is unquestionably one of the best, and even his so-called lesser efforts are to me always worthy of consideration.
The following things about Public Enemies I doubt will be debated:
1. Johnny Depp is pitch-perfect as John Dillinger. He is so likable and watchable that he easily manages the job of making an audience root for a career criminal (while not a sadist or a murderer, Dillinger was not any kind of hero) – even though most of us know how Dillinger’s story ended going into the movie, we’re all rooting for things to go differently. Depp also conveys a stoicism and a confidence of nature that feels right for the character. Turns out he is the perfect star for Mann’s signature brand of tragic romanticism.
2. Marion Cotillard is a good match for him as Dillinger’s true love, Billie Frechette. The criticisms will center around the fact that she doesn’t get as much to do, and gets far less screen time. That’s true. However, she makes the most of the time she has – an ethos her character states at a memorable moment in the movie. I really believed her performance in this movie, believed in her love for John Dillinger, and not for what he could give her, but for his dedication to her and his confidence in what he wanted. (Her.)
3. Christian Bale’s role, as Melvin Purvis, is by far the more thankless one. As I’d anticipated, he is a good fit as the rigid counterpoint to the debonair Depp as Dillinger. He’s relatively humorless, and you pretty quickly come to root against him in his pursuit of the flashier, more charismatic character. However, keep in mind that Bale has to carry the half of the film that Depp isn’t in, to keep it grounded and compelling, and that’s a role that not just any actor can manage.
4. The filmmaking style is different than what we’re used to.
It’s this last point where the debate about Public Enemies is going to begin. For me, obviously the way the movie is made completely worked. For others, it may not, and I (and any other fan of the film) probably have to respect that. Michael Mann and his cinematographer, the great Dante Spinotti (Mann’s guy on Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider), not to mention the crew of film editors and sound designers, take a lot of stylistic risks that to me, made for an incredibly immersive experience, but to others may be less effective (at first – hopefully they’ll give the movie another chance).
For one thing, the high-def photography is startling in this venue. We’re not just un-used to this look in gangster pictures – we’re un-used to any period piece ever looking quite like this. As Depp reaches out a hand to a wounded comrade, we see the pores in his hand – such intricate detail makes the scene seem more real than usual, less romanticized and more disturbing. An older man is dying in front of our eyes; when Dillinger can’t hold him any longer, he’s let go and becomes dead weight on the road.
The way that the lighting plays across the view of these cameras is new and different. The scene where Dillinger stops in a phone booth off a country road to phone Billie had me catching my breath for the unusual look of it, as did the more overtly spectacular scene of the plane carrying the captive Dillinger towards a throng of hysterical reporters. The shootout at the hotel in the woods (you’ll know it when you see it) is destined to become a classic, as are the penultimate and ultimate scenes at the Biograph Theater, if there is any justice. We just haven’t seen a huge-budget period piece that has ever looked like this.
The sound design is equally startling. It either forces you to pay attention, as it did for me and the rest of the packed, raptly-focused audience I watched it with, or it could conceivably distract you, as it seems to have in some of the reviews and feedback from friends I’m getting. Wild sound (that additionally recorded sound that keeps the noise consistent between shots) is often left out of some scenes. Soundtrack music often drifts in and out of scenes subtly, and occasionally cuts off abruptly between them. [Honestly, that second point was a little distracting even to me.] By losing some of the artificial contrivances that films have conditioned audiences to expect, Mann has made a film that to me is all the more hypnotic. Others will not see it that way, especially in a movie season where most people are looking for artifice.
Also, the storytelling demands complete attention. Many recognizable faces pop up through the course of the movie, some very briefly, and it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who on first viewing. Bryan Burrough’s source material book had maps and character keys and indexes so that the reader can keep track of what is a dense, multi-character story. A movie can’t do that, so Public Enemies necessarily moves quickly in that regard. Many of these characters are detailed enough to warrant movies of their own (in the case of the high-profile bankrobbers like Pretty-Boy Floyd and Baby-Face Nelson, many of them have) and I can see how it would be frustrating to not spend more screen time with them.
For me, the story of Dillinger and his lady is enough, as I suspect it is for Mann. Again, I just plain believed it. I believed how much he liked her, I believed how much she liked him, I believed their desperation when they were apart, I believed their desperation when they were trying to get back to each other. The “Bye Bye Blackbird” motif just killed me. I guess I’m a tragic romantic in my own right. This kind of stuff just works at the right note on my heartstrings.
I imagine that I will have more to say on the subject of Public Enemies as time goes on. (MORE?!?) Michael Mann’s movies have a way of entering the fabric of my consciousness – they just often resemble the way I perceive the world, or maybe they influence that perception. That’s how it is with some people and some movies. In Public Enemies, Mann even suggests a similar idea, with the scene where Dillinger watches his last movie – he brilliantly suggests what Dillinger may have been thinking about as he watched that particular film; using authentic, specifically-selected clips, that early Clark Gable film, Manhattan Melodrama, takes on a mythic, yet crushingly personal, potency. Michael Mann’s movies have often affected me the way that Manhattan Melodrama affects John Dillinger in Public Enemies. So I doubt that all of the above is my final word on the subject, as it all will continue to sink in, and then I will inevitably see it again. My goal in writing this today is to encourage anyone reading this to go out and see the movie for themselves, on the big screen, with a theatrical sound system, as it is meant to be seen, because I can’t wait to hear what the rest of you are thinking.
[This article appeared in slightly different form at www.mapcidy.com, but I wanted to include it here also because it’s got as good a shot as any movie this year at reappearing in this space for my year-end top ten.]