Too arty for mainstream audiences, and apparently too arty for critics too, Public Enemies wasn’t exactly what most were looking for from a $100-million Johnny Depp-Christian Bale July 4th blockbuster. Like most Michael Mann films, it received a rather lukewarm reception upon bowing in US cinemas. Which is unfortunate.
I was going to herald Public Enemies as Mann’s best since The Insider, or even Heat, but let me go out on a limb: it’s Mann’s best film period, an out-and-out masterpiece that succeeds not only as a immaculately detailed, beautifully realized portrait of the last months of John Dillinger’s life, but also as an immense technical achievement.
Digital video has been used effectively in recent years as both a gimmick and substitute for film, but Public Enemies is the first major film in which the technology stands it own. Dillinger (Depp) is a notorious bank robber, but he’s also a Robin Hood-like folk hero: “we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours” (a line copped from Mann’s Heat.)
He’s become an obsession for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who appoints top agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to take him down.
During the course of Public Enemies, Dillinger escapes from prison twice with the help of his crew (which includes characters played by Jason Clarke, David Wenham, and Stephen Dorff), robs a number of banks, falls in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and – if this is a spoiler, this film isn’t for you – is eventually gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago by Purvis’ squad, betrayed by his mafia connections and the notorious ‘Lady in Red’.
Plot, however, is the last thing on Mann’s mind: his film is a study, of characters, of themes, of a bygone era; the nature of right and wrong and good and bad. This is strung together through a number of highly memorable set pieces, with the breakouts, the robberies, the shootouts, all highly compelling within their own bounds, even if the overall film doesn’t have that driving force that grabs you and doesn’t let go.
Above all, though, this is a work of art. Depp naturally oozes charm, and he’s a perfect embodiment of Dillinger, the anti-hero complicit in murder and mayhem but, hey, not all that bad.
Cotillard is award-worthy as Frechette, the character lies at the heart of the film and provides its emotional backbone. Supporting cast is likewise excellent, from Crudup’s Hoover, Clarke’s Red, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson, Peter Gerety as Louis Piquett, down to Stephen Lang as the professional from Texas Purvis calls in. His final scene with Cotillard is unforgettable.
Bale won’t get much recognition, but the film’s depiction of Purvis is incredibly read-between-the-lines rich, and his performance hits all the right notes of subtlety. Mann’s matter-of-fact presentation leaves little room for any characterization, even with Dillinger.
But Purvis is foppish, mostly ineffective; he gets his men killed and doesn’t have the respect of the professionals he brings in. He’s the villain of the picture to Dillinger’s anti-hero, and the way this is eventually conveyed is quite brilliant.
In previous years, we’ve seen digital video used as a you-are-there gimmick in films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project; it’s also been used as a replacement for film by directors like David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez, and Mann himself in Collateral and Miami Vice. But Public Enemies is the first film I can recall that combines the two techniques in a way that fully exploits the technology.
The film is breathtakingly beautiful. Mann showed us in Collateral that video can capture night in ways that film simply couldn’t; scenes here – in particular one of the film’s best sequences, the Little Bohemia shootout – look gorgeous, in ways we really haven’t seen before. But it isn’t just the nighttime scenes: the cinematography by Dante Spinotti is florid, lingering, employing traditional cinematic techniques with just the right balance of the handheld realist stuff.
And the set design is immaculate. We’re always aware that this is video. Or at least, that this is different: it’s a 1930’s period piece, and it looks like no other period piece we’ve ever seen, with the heightened realism that only digital video can offer. I want to say the digital look accomplishes this by itself, but shaky-cam stylistics and guerrilla-style zooms are also employed. Tastefully.
This never delves into Greengrass Bourne territory; the editing, in particular, never draws attention to itself. Minor quibble: digital video still ain’t perfect. There are a couple instances of what I’ll refer to as “ghosting” during scenes of quick camera movement.
Major quibble: while the film certainly seems genuine and rigidly adherent to minute details – the famed “Lady in Red” is wearing orange and white, as she really did – it actually plays so fast and loose with basic historical facts that anyone familiar with the events will be dumbfounded.
All the characters are here, but they appear together when they shouldn’t, where they shouldn’t, and they perish in the wrong order (Pretty Boy Floyd is killed near the beginning of the film, but he actually outlived Dillinger – and there are numerous other examples.)
The disregard for historical fact didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the movie at all, but I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it and cannot offer a plausible reason Mann and his writers chose to portray the events in this manner.
There is an effective scene late in the film where Dillinger walks into an empty police station, sees a lineup of his associates, and realizes he’s the last of his kind, but there’s otherwise little reason, plotwise, why they couldn’t have stuck to the basics and made the film more accurate. The style in which Public Enemies is filmed certainly seems to call for it.