Above all else, Public Enemies is a Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans) film. That means it’s guaranteed to have several signature elements. It will be jammed with quick edits that make scenes look like they’re made from jumbled mosaics, but then punctuated by long lyrical shots of exquisite beauty. It’s as if Mann, the storyteller, knows he has to modulate his pace so as to enchant but not exhaust his audience, and also let his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Inside, Last of the Mohicans), have occasional moments of artistic indulgence.
Mann’s films always pay exquisite attention to detail, using them like shards of reflected light in a diamond. Public Enemies, set in the early Depression, is a sparkling history lesson in the popular culture of the country’s hardest time–the glorious automobiles, fantastic fashions, breathtaking architecture, the music that crooned about better times to come, the Hollywood movie palaces where actors made dreams come true for the struggling masses. Public Enemies creates a nostalgic world where psychopathic gangsters, oddly charismatic in their sartorial excellence, became folk heroes because they robbed the institutions that heartlessly foreclosed on people’s houses and farms.
Michael Mann, a director noted for his relentless egomania, creates movies in which like-minded men emerge heroic–notably Will Smith in Ali, Russell Crowe in The Insider, Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and one of my all-time favorite pairings, James Caan and Willie Nelson in Thief.
This time it’s Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) who’ll ratchet up his reputation a few more notches as the country’s Public Enemy #1, bank robber John Dillinger. Chasing him like a demon possessed is head of the Chicago office of the FBI, agent Melvin Purvis, played with thin-lipped resolve by Christian Bale (The Dark Knight). In a brilliant turn, Billy Crudup (The Good Shepherd) portrays another egomaniac, FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who sees the nation’s gangsters, especially those in the heartland, as the backs on which he will step to create his crime-fighting empire.
As he has several times before (notably in Thief and Last of the Mohicans), director Mann develops a love story that is important as the hero’s journey of his men. This time it’s the ill-fated romance between John Dillinger and a lovely hatcheck gal Billie Frechette. Played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) in her first American movie, Ms. Frechette becomes a typical Depression-era heroine with echoes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford–she’s lovely, smart-mouthed, loyal to point of self-sacrifice and strong as a sod farmer. As she’s being beaten to a pulp by a ham-fisted FBI agent, she’s also the only character in the movie who really demonstrates courage.
John Dillinger was the product of a misguided criminal justice system. Imprisoned for nine years for a $50 dollar robbery, by the time he got out, he was aching for revenge and already a bank robbery dynamo thanks to the tips he learned from the experts he’d befriended while in the pen.
Dillinger’s cronies like Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, all portrayed in the movie in cameo roles, were being hunted down and killed by Agent Purvis and his team. Criminals had upped their firepower–there are so many gunfights in Public Enemies that you actually lose count. But the FBI added new weapons– communications, technology, and the money to pay informants to bring betrayal to fine art.
Dillinger was no fool. He knew he’d die on the sorry side of a bullet, he just wanted the end to be on his own time. Agent Purvis comes close several times but Dillinger, with the intuition of a wild cat, escapes just in the nick of time embarrassing the bumbling crime-fighters and thrilling the American public. Purvis becomes obsessed with finding Dillinger, even as he grows disillusioned with his boss Hoover’s increasing attempts to behave as badly as the criminals he was charged with pursuing.
Dillinger refused to engage in kidnappings or other kinds of unlikeable crimes because he enjoyed pleasing the American public, who were crazy about their criminals who thumbed their noses at the establishment. He was always fond of the dramatic touch–he would leap over bank counters with his long coat flying behind him like the cape of a Musketeer. He perfected the art of the clever sound-bite. And it didn’t hurt that he had lean good looks that he accentuated with a raffish tilt to his hat. But don’t believe that folk hero bit–Dillinger never gave any of his ill-gotten goods away to poor people. Public Enemies basically tells the story of John Dillinger’s last year. He was killed at age 31, after only a year or so of freedom, on his way out of a movie theatre where he enjoyed seeing Clark Gable as a gangster who also had a sad end.
Public Enemies masterfully re-introduces the gangster film into the American cinema lexicon. It’s compelling, beautiful, fascinating, and, in a rare feat for violent films, it doesn’t create heroes of men–on both sides of the law–who were essentially criminals without conscience.