A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG-13, 140 mins.
2009, PG-13, 140 mins.
John Dillinger: Johnny
Melvin Purvis: Christian
Billie Frechette: Marion
Hamilton: Jason Clarke /
Agent Carter Baum: Rory
J. Edgar Hoover: Billy Crudup /
Homer Van Meter: Stephen
Charles Winstead: Stephen
Alvin Karpis: Giovanni
"Baby Face" Nelson: Stephen Graham /
Anna Sage: Branka Katic
There is one key sequence that cuts to the heart behind Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES.
During it we see
John Dillinger - at the height of his mythic status as a cocky,
charismatic, and sharp-tongued rogue - attempt to seduce a woman he barely
knows. He simply wants her at his side at all times.
The beautiful lady in question, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)
informs him that she has difficulty dropping everything to instantly be by
his side. She tells him that
she hardly knows him. He
responds with a
cold, calculating, and authoritative enunciation and confidence: “I like baseball, movies, good clothes,
fast cars…and you. What
else do you need to know?”
line reinforces the sweeping brilliance of Mann’s overall approach to
demystifying the legend of John Herbert Dillinger.
PUBLIC ENEMIES – based ostensibly on Bryan Burrough’s
exhaustively researched PUBLIC ENEMIES: AMERICA'S GREATEST CRIME WAVE
AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI: 1933-34 – does not laboriously waste time in
dealing with the entire arc of the criminal's life.
We never learn about his childhood, the precipitating factors
that influenced his later crime career, nor is any attempt made to
rationalize or explain his psychology as an infamous bank robber.
That’s the stuff of routine, dime-a-dozen biopics.
Instead, Mann does the next best thing: he paints a challenging and
absorbing portrait of the Depression-era criminal with a stark immediacy
that never looks back. It’s
absolutely fundamental that Mann thrusts viewers aggressively into the
film by beginning it with Dillinger’s audacious jailbreak from a prison
in Lima. At this time his
reputation and Robin Hood-esque stature had cemented itself into the pop
culture milieu of the times: he was simply the country's most celebrated gangsters. The
film does not need to explain why he was followed and cherished, just that he
Dillinger fare would have chronicled the figure’s entire life, but Mann
is not aiming for a completist spirit: he’s trying to capture a
fragment of Dillinger's law-breaking history and interpret its essence.
PUBLIC ENEMIES is not deeply rooted in realism, per se, but rather
aspires for an impressionistic vibe. It neither overtly glamorizes nor
vilifies Dillinger’s murderous and thieving ways: it attempts to
effectively capture to look and feel of his times and exploits, and Mann
is an unparalleled master of crafting atmosphere.
His Dillinger in the film is a frank speaking opportunist: when
asked at one point what he wants in life, he matter-of-factly responds,
man simply lives in the moment, without much of a care in the world as to the future, let alone past the next big score.
It seems, in hindsight, highly appropriate that PUBLIC ENEMIES has
an equally leisurely and nonchalant style and approach to the material. It propels us right in the middle of a key moment in his life
with a refreshing and exhilarating randomness and maintains a fever pitched,
rat-ta-tat gusto and momentum right up until that fateful night outside
Chicago’s Biograph Movie Theatre in July of 1934 .
techniques here seem to cheerfully disregard the polished and glossy big
budget sheen that so many other large-scale historical biopics adhere to. That is not to say
that PUBLIC ENEMIES is not epic, but
it’s just another category of intrepid and bold filmmaking. Shooting in HD video instead of 35mm film and using his
frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann conveys a
hypnotic and ethereal dreamlike allure to his vision of the past.
The set ups feel loose and improvisational, giving the film a
documentary-styled sense of veracity. The movement of the camera
feels chaotic, but it nevertheless has a spontaneous fluidity; it it also intimate.
Mann places the camera tightly in close-ups, over the shoulders
of characters, and sometimes even down the barrels of the Tommy guns
help entrench audience members. The
camera careens in and out of scenes with a freewheeling and unsophisticated
energy, which only further assists to heighten the film’s
impressionistic veneer. This
workmanlike and low key aesthetic is one of the film’s unqualified
triumphs: its suggests the evocative intrigue, limitless allure, and dark
glamour of Dillinger’s lifestyle.
In a way, Mann’s choices behind the camera kind of mirror the
mood and mindset of the main character.
A slick and lustrous looking film would have been lost on this
figure, who lived life by the seat of his pants.
Dillinger never lived in the past, nor does this film.
Dillinger’s celebrated prison escape, the film shows how he and his gang
journey to Chicago where he begins to become involved with the half Indian,
half French Frechette., whom he quickly decides will be the love of his
life. As he continues one
daring bank robbery after another, Dillinger becomes the fixation of FBI
head honcho J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup, who creepily morphs
into his role with a snarled and sinister precision) who decides to appoint Melvin
Purvis (Christian Bale, in another reliably stern and commanding performance as the dapper and straight-arrowed G-man) as the head of a
special task force that designed to bring Dillinger and his men to justice
once and for all. Purvis,
despite having a chilling determination to rid the world of criminals
altogether, has some very serious early setbacks in his attempts to
apprehend Dillinger. Like all
good intrepid lawmen hell bent on dispatching justice, he learns form his
mistakes and begins to discover how to turn misfortune into opportunity.
Dillinger is apprehended…again…in Crown Pointe and thrown in a jail
that many of the time regarded as escape-proof.
Needless to say, Dillinger miraculously frees himself and returns
to the Windy City. Upon his
return he learns that the city is now being overseen by the likes of Frank
Nitti, who feel that Dillinger is bad for business.
This leads to a lack of decent alternatives for him, which forces
him to form an uneasy and shaky alliance with the likes of Baby Face
Nelson (Stephen Graham). As
time passes and options begin to wear thin, a conspiracy of forces both
within and outside Dillinger’s inner sanctum ultimately led to (no
spoiler required here; this is history) him being gunned down by the FBI
outside of a movie theatre. The
movie playing was the Clark Gable mob drama MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, where its
main star - playing a racketeer facing death via the electric chair -
utters at one point,
“Die Like you live: all of a sudden!”
Depp’s Dillinger cracks a sly and mischievous smile as he sees
this sequence on the silver screen; it’s also haunting moment, perhaps
hinting that Dillinger knew that the walls of his world were closing in on
him, but since the movies were now entrenched in glamorizing his
brethren, then his own demise would allow his stature to live on
ENEMIES, as stated, is a tour de force of first rate-production artifice.
The Chicago-born Mann has always been regarded as a painterly
director that uses environments and scenery act as tertiary characters in their
own right (he stirringly recreates 1930's Chicago using the real locations
Dillinger encountered). Mann
also crafts individual moments of intensity and suspense, as is the case
with the best-extended section of PUBLIC ENEMIES.
In a fierce and blood curdling action sequence that rivals the
pulse pounding exchange of firearms in the Guggenheim Museum in this
year’s THE INTERNATIONAL, Mann
does a bravura job of showcasing the 1934 FBI raid on Dillinger and his
gang at Wisconsin’s Little Bohemia Lodge.
It is a harshly beautiful and gut-wrenching orgy of Tommy and
shotgun fire set against the desolate backdrop of the nighttime
sky. Mann has always managed
to be one of the foremost quarterbacks of manipulating and choreographing
ballets of bullets and gore (see his seminal sequence in HEAT, for
instance, or some of
his lesser revered, but also fantastic, action set pieces in COLLATERAL and
MIAMI VICE). The thrill of
the chase, the impending doom of close quartered gun fire exchanges, and
the sense of unrelenting dread of who will die next…all of this Mann orchestrates
in a masterful 15-minute
show stopping sequence with the skill and precision of a taskmaster.
film has countless other individual scenes of fascination: The second daring jailbreak, which showcases how Dillinger
escaped the seemingly escape-proof prison using nothing more than a wooden
replica of a gun and a whole lot of testosterone and gumption, is a marvel to
see. Perhaps the one scene
that unquestionably cements Dillinger as a man incomparable nerve and serious
cajones occurs during a later moment in the film where he decides to
make an impromptu appearance at a police station and into the very
office of Purvis’ task force. He
walks around quietly, observing and drinking in all of the details (he
sees charts, photos of his buddies that have been killed, and notes on
squad strategy) and even manages to have a quick exchange with some of
the officers that are listening to ball game on the radio….then he
brazenly walks out. Perhaps
equally compelling is a short – but devilishly sly – scene where
Dillinger and his men are enjoying a pre-movie newsreel that eventually
comes to show a large photo of him filling up the screen with an ominous
voice over informing the audience to look over each shoulder for fear that
he could be sitting right next to them when they least expect it. Dillinger, being steely eyed and collected, barely flinches
when he sees his mug plastered on the silver screen; he does let out a wily and
prideful smirk, not too dissimilar from the one he will
later sport while watching Gable.
is an undercurrent of darkness to the film in the sense that Dillinger
maintains an impenetrable and invincible ego throughout his law-breaking
career that ultimately got the better of him.
I think that’s why Johnny Depp is able to so thoroughly win over
audiences with his performance. What’s
important is that he does not go for camera-mugging theatrics, nor does he
play this larger-than-life mythic figure in broad, showboating strokes.
Depp instead creates a surprisingly low-key and muted Dillinger that echoes what must have been the man’s inner sense of both
romanticism and fatalism. Depp is not
interested in crafting a one-note villain nor a totally amiable anti-hero, but rather a
conflicted, somewhat haunted and troubled soul that becomes so smitten
with the excesses of his lifestyle that he must have known the end was near.
Yes, he was a rascally smart ass that dazzled newsmen and women with his
easygoing manner and likeable, plainspoken wit, but Depp reassures us that
his Dillinger is by no means a saint.
He was a killer and a thief, before everything else.
He was a killer and a thief, before everything else.
This is Depp’s film on a performance level, to be sure, but the supporting players as well bring much to the table. Many have short-changed Christian Bale for giving a staunchly monotone and emotionless performance as the justice obsessed Purvis, but those critics fail to see that Bale strategically presents him as an icy and emotionally unflinching foil to the charming and easy-going Dillinger. Bale’s rock-steady focus here, playing Purvis as a man of nearly impassable fortitude and resolve, is as important to the film as Depp’s more endearing performance. Purvis is purposely one-note because he is a man of singular drives to end the reign of Dillinger and Bale thanklessly sells his role’s sense of impassive efficiency and unwavering commitment to the law.
has the somewhat dubious task of essentially playing the trophy "dame" to Dillinger, and there is certainly a temptation to
infer that any actress could have inhabited the role.
Without question, Cotillard is a ravishingly gorgeous on-screen
presence that captivates the camera in every scene she appears in, and she
certainly looks the part of her period character.
Yet, she also brings a beguiling and touching layer of melancholy
to her part that would have been lost under the hands of a lesser actress. She is able to craft believable and instant chemistry with
Depp, which is not easy considering the shotgun nature of the romance.
And later moments when she experiences the unflinching brutality of
rough and loathsome police officer savagely beating the truth of
Dillinger’s whereabouts out of her have a startling power.
Cotillard creates a woman of honor, loyalty, and impeachable
resiliency…not as easy of a sell as many think.
However, the real main attraction of PUBLIC ENEMIES is Michael Mann, whose fingerprints all over the film from the stunningly realized opening sequence to the fist clenching tension and intrigue of Dillinger’s final moments where he could cheat death no longer (the sign of a consummate directorial visionary, I think, is in one’s ability to create palpable suspense in scenes where the outcome is already a part of widespread historical knowledge, and Mann’s theatre-chair grabbing final sequence showcasing Dillinger’s death packs a resounding wallop). PUBLIC ENEMIES is a fiercely disciplined, meticulous researched, exceptionally executed, and handsomely shot real-life gangster epic where Mann’s skill and understanding of the filmmaking craft really come to the forefront and keeps you in your seat. The film’s loose, expressive, and spontaneous stylistic choices here are a perfect medicine for the bloated and wasteful indulgences of other recent crap-tacular summer fare (you can run all you want, Michael Bay and TRANSFORMERS 2, but you can’t hide). PUBLIC ENEMIES is not an all-encompassing Dillinger biopic, nor should it be seen that way. It is a film that effortlessly captures the emotional quintessence of Dillinger’s peak moment in history when the public made a killer and robber into a folklore legend. Explaining his mythological stature with monotonous details would have been foolhardy, but Mann is a shrewd enough to understand that the best way to envision one of the 20th Century’s most beguiling and infamous men is to create an immaculate and memorable sense of mood and ambience.
There's no wasteful and dull exposition, no examination of psychology or methodology, and no commentary on the criminal lifestyle: PUBLIC ENEMIES just explodes on the screen and just comes blazing out at you without any recourse...much like Dillinger himself.