Watching Michael Mann’s Public Enemies I felt like I had missed the
first film. The movie plays like a rise and fall story (sort of like
Soderbergh’s Che, which was split into two halves) but there’s no rise;
the movie opens with John Dillinger at his bank robbing peak and then
follows him down. The problem here is that without a rise story the
characters surrounding Dillinger are nobodies; while their deaths as
the gang is chipped away by Melvin Purvis and his G-Men are meant to
show the decline of Dillinger’s fortunes, they play more like the
deaths in a slasher movie. Fodder characters getting offed, without any
sense of who they are, or why we should really care beyond the fact
that Mann casts delightfully recognizable actors in almost every role,
no matter how minor, in the film. Good night and farewell, young
Stephen Dorff, but I had no idea who the hell you were in the movie.
To be fair and open, the distance I felt from Public Enemies wasn’t all
that different from the distance I feel at most Michael Mann films.
Mann doesn’t seem to care about the same things that I care about, and
even in the Mann films that work best for me – Heat obviously being one
– there’s nothing for me to really grab a hold of beyond the technical.
Ali is the one Mann film that ever really moved me, and that surely
because of the natural – almost supernatural – merger of the charismas
of Will Smith and Ali himself. It’s a magic performance, and it makes
There’s no such magic performance in Public Enemies. At the very end of
the film Marion Cotillard, finally given something to do, shows a
ferocity that, properly used earlier in the film, could have been
something magical. She’s so good in these final scenes that I actually
felt bad for dismissing her earlier in the picture; she speaks with a
really bizarre accent that no one seems to notice, and she has a
modestly mechanical aura about her (probably brought on, I learned, by
the fact that she had to memorize the English dialogue exactly and
couldn’t adjust it or play with it on set). But the final minutes…
the movie closes on a shot of her and it’s perfect and it makes you
wonder what a film about her character, a woman who because of her
partially Native American genetics was an outcast who found a man who
found a way of turning being an outcast (outlaw) into being a hero,
would have been like.
But that isn’t Public Enemies. At its heart Public Enemies is a fairly
standard picture, a ‘Crime Doesn’t Pay’ movie that spends much of its
running time tut-tutting Dillinger’s inability to create anything that
resembles a plan for his future. At the other end of the spectrum is
the stiff, professional figure of Melvin Purvis, a guy who along with
the fledgling FBI (still without the F for Federal part of their name)
is creating the very procedures that would come to define procedural
movies. It’s a study in filmmaker schizophrenia, as Mann focuses on and
seems to like Dillinger but you can tell that he really feels Purvis.
In fact Purvis, played with the usual lock-jawed intensity of the ever
intense Christian ‘Intense’ Bale, is the character who has the most
trouble. He’s just trying to do his job and he’s caught in between two
flamboyant attention whores. On one side it’s Dillinger, who boasts
that he can take any bank in under two minutes and who escapes lock up
with a gun carved from soap, and on the other it’s J Edgar Hoover (a
really excellent Billy Crudup, mining depths in a short screen time),
who is looking to become America’s iron fisted protector. Poor Purvis
is just trying to do his job – professionally, coolly, like a Michael
Mann character – but he keeps getting fucked up by the flighty bank
robbing bumpkin and the fussy publicity hound director.
I suppose that there must be something that Mann likes about Dillinger.
The guy was incredibly successful at what he did, although the movie
goes out of its way to point out that what he did was only a drop in
the bucket compared to the kind of money the Mafia pulled in daily from
gambling alone. He was also friendly, amiable, funny and apparently a
real Robin Hood. What I found most interesting in the film is how Mann
seems uninterested in deconstructing Dillinger; this film mostly
presents Dillinger the Myth, and I never fully came to understand what
made him tick, just what made him Great.
Johnny Depp was born to play roles like this, bad guys with so much
charisma that you come to believe they’re good guys. Dillinger’s big
problem as a character, though, is that he has no idea what’s about to
happen to him; he doesn’t even begin to consider retiring from the bank
robbery business until his entire gang is dead and the mob tells him
they’re through with him (his penny ante hold ups are bringing real
heat on the Mafia, and they’re furious that his antics are forcing the
feds to create laws about interstate crime, their bread and butter).
This means that Depp gets fewer colors to play; without a sense of
impending doom, Dillinger is essentially the same guy at the beginning
of Act Three (just a little more desperate) that he was at the
beginning of Act One.
Then again, who’s going to complain? Watching Johnny Depp take part in
old-timey Thompson machine gun fights is one of the film’s main
pleasures. It’s a Michael Mann movie, so you know the action will be
satisfying, and there’s one shootout, where Dillinger and his guys are
holed up in the woods with Babyface Nelson, that’s a classic.
The other element of Public Enemies is the digital video. Michael Mann
has said that he wanted the movie to feel not like a period piece but
to feel vital. He wanted it to be like you were there in the 1930s. I
didn’t quite get that impression. What I did get was the feeling that
some guy with a video camera was in the 1930s. A not particularly great
video camera. Which is crazy, as I’m sure Mann was using top of the
line equipment. But that doesn’t change the fact that while the
cinematography (from the masterful Dante Spinotti) sometimes looks
gorgeous at other times looks terrible. It’s mostly in extreme light
situations that the digital video shows every single one of its flaws –
softness, blurring in motion, a really pixelated video look. Mix that
with Mann’s seeming proclivity for live, unsweetened audio – ie, you
can hear different background hisses depending on where the mic is in
relation to other objects – and the film sometimes carries the
impression of a college project.
I sat through all of Public Enemies without a complaint, but without
ever being really transported. Will the hardcore Michael Mann fans love
it? Likely, as they’ll probably get from it what they get from his
other movies that continues to elude me. While Public Enemies is a well
made, well acted, well written film, it’s one without a spark at the
center to make it truly special.