Men in Trenchoats
2009 // USA // Michael Mann // July 3, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - Public Enemies seems like the sort of film that was made for Michael Mann. Tackling the story of John Dillinger's final months, Mann enters terrain with which he is intimately familiar. In Dillinger, he rediscovers his reliable archetypal protagonist: a man with a disciplined code of behavior, a code tested by allies and rivals and by the sheer capricious character of life. Like any period American epic worth its salt, Public Enemies examines the national soul from a variety of angles, pitting conflicting impulses against one another and commenting on contemporary agonies with a cunning reserve. Mann's captivating style is as welcome as ever, even if it is unfortunately hidden by the murk of digital video. Despite this questionable choice, Public Enemies is peppered with stunning cinematic moments, matings of color, sound, and motion that linger long after the context has vanished. It's a shame that the surrounding film is unexpectedly rote, a collection of lively sequences that lack the narrative thrust or consistency in tone that might have made for an outstanding criminal fable. It's a gratifying and expressive film, to be sure, but Public Enemies doesn't even aim for the psychological and social complexity of other late Mann works.
In 1933, Dillinger, played with customary meltaway charisma by Johnny Depp, was both Public Enemy Number One and a Depression-era folk hero. He revels in the thrill of a bank heist and the public adoration that the American public showers on him, shying away from crimes that might tarnish his image. By robbing only from bank vaults, never bank customers, he wins over hearts and minds; the fact that he is an unrepentant cop-killer doesn't seem to matter. On the other side of the law and order coin is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a straight-arrow FBI agent who J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, hamming it up agreeably) tasks with Dillinger's capture. For all the criticism lobbed at Bale's grim performances in the Batman films, tapping him to portray Purvis is dead-on casting. Bale brings the exact Golden Boy sleekness and ambition that the role requires, with just a whisper of uncertainty. Purvis is a Hoover acolyte, dedicated to the notion of a modernized federal law enforcement agency. The hunt for Dillinger, however, eventually demands that Purvis call in some rock-ribbed Texas Rangers to supplement his office, most prominently the steely Agent Winstead (Stephen Lang).
Structurally, Public Enemies is perhaps best distinguished by its dissimilarity to Mann's most renowned films. Although it splits its time fairly evenly between Dillinger's gang and the FBI, the resemblance between Enemies and Heat ends there. The new film's sympathies and descriptive concerns lie decisively with Dillinger, and therefore Enemies lacks the distinctive thematic and narrative twinning of Heat's epic cops-and-robbers tale, not to mention that film's stunning inertia. Nor is Enemies truly a biopic, certainly nothing like Ali with its impressionistic coilings, being far too attentive to its secondary and tertiary characters. No, Public Enemies is, resolutely and a bit disappointingly, a straightforward crime drama, albeit one executed with Mann's characteristic flair and jostles. The director's storytelling is, as always, expansive and unconventional, not so much proceeding through the story as roaming through it: occasionally accelerating along the dull stretches, slowing down to admire the scenery, or indulging in side trips. For aficionados of Mann's luscious stylings—and I freely admit to being a member of that cinephile subspecies—Public Enemies has plenty to feast upon. The director's longtime collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, delivers a look that is slightly off-key, characterized by the claustrophobic close-ups and arrhythmic cuts that have become Mann hallmarks.
At first blush, Depp's sparkle might seem a bit out-of-place in Public Enemies' world of hard-nosed gangsters and Depression grime. Like Brad Pitt as Jesse James, however, Depp;s magnetism and real-world celebrity bolster his credibility in a role that is fundamentally about stardom. Unlike Pitt's ambivalent, self-destructive outlaw, however, Dillinger thrives on fame. In a pivotal, almost Spielbergian scene, he wanders incognito through the Chicago police department's "Dillinger Unit," where the evidence of his crimes electrifies him and jolts him out of any thought of giving up the game. Depp's smoothness lends cool ego to Dillinger, casting him not so much as a vicious mook—as Stephen Graham's Babyface Nelson seems to be—but as a typically avaricious, thrill-seeking Big Man. "What do you want?," asks Dillinger's resolute moll, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). His response is quintessentially American: "Everything. Right now." Billie, who confesses that nothing exciting has ever happened to her, also wants everything right now, and for that she is willing to tolerate the doubt and peril that comes with being the squeeze of the most wanted man in America.
The qualities of Mann's characters are never gratuitous; they illustrate motivations, morals, and temperaments that are sharply defined and yet authentic. Public Enemies is no exception, and the dualities that it presents are stimulating and multitude. Thus, while Dillinger and Purvis are the film's most conspicuous pair, Mann also highlights the distinctions between Dillinger's coolness and Nelson's cavalier bloodlust; between Purvis' zeal and Winstead's unexpected wisdom and propriety; and between Dillinger's crowd-pleasing theatrics and overlord Frank Nitti's smoothly whirring criminal engine. No less fascinating is the film's critical examination of unforeseen historical consequences. While Mann has never shied away from sociopolitical bite in his works, he has not previously explored a period setting's implications for the contemporary. Without overstating its case, Enemies suggests that the culpability for our present-day justice system's excesses lies in part with the short-sighted judgment of men like Dillinger and Purvis. Their toxic, symbiotic relationship provides nourishment to the militarization of law enforcement, complete with automatic weapons, wiretapping, and â€œenhanced interrogation.
While these elements lurk intriguingly just below the surface, Mann seems reluctant to engage with them, save on a cursory level. The drama of blazing Tommy-gun battles and Dillinger's repeated, jaw-dropping escapes hold his attention to a greater degree than cerebral matters. Even Mann's long-standing thematic fixation—the centrality of masculine honor, especially under duress—doesn't receive the airing the source material might suggest. The result is that Public Enemies feels uncharacteristically conventional for Mann, despite the fact that it's as visually compelling as anything the director has done. (Never mind that video has no business anywhere near a lavish period film; Enemies is still a great-looking film.) There's also a vexing lack of urgency in Enemies' bloodstream. It often seems as though the set pieces, while stimulating, squat within discrete chambers, with only the expository declarations of characters to tie them together. The film lacks the tonal through-line that would complete the intriguing, half-formed thoughts that seem doodled in its margins. Fortunately, Enemies remains delicious drama, with sufficient cinematic vitality and thematic vistas to satisfy.