Public Enemies Review
As it turns out, the 1930s were in neither black and white nor sepia. The edges were not tattered or torn. People bled when shot, and the pain of death was as much a reality then as it is now. The conditioning of monochrome nostalgia is little more than a lie. Warm and pleasing to the thought, but still a lie. When Michael Mann wants to show his audience the 1930s, he's careful not only to avoid those expectations but also to remove much of the gloss associated with Hollywood mythmaking. Using a specific selection of high definition cameras that intentionally do not replicate the look of film, Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti, teamed once again after a ten-year break following The Insider, offer shots, angles and hand-held camera work that recall the present far more than the past. The disorienting leap into these odd images - shaky, unusual, less crisp and darker than most films - has an especially weird contrast in Mann's frequent reminders that, while realistic and detailed and based in truth, everything being shown is fiction.
Mann lined Public Enemies with one familiar face after another. He started with a bona fide movie star in Johnny Depp to play "Public Enemy Number One" John Dillinger, added the nominal star of the highest-grossing picture this decade, and dotted the rest of his cast with faces easily recognizable to movie and television viewers. Even when an actor might have a single scene with hardly any lines, it's often someone we've noticed elsewhere. Because Mann does make such an obvious effort to present the time period faithfully but still in a much different, more realistic manner than viewers are used to, it seems curious that a peeling back of that camouflage takes place via the consistent notoriety of the cast. And yet, the paradox actually makes perfect sense once you realize the semi-documentary aesthetic can coexist as a contrast to the separate theme of fame and celebrity. As Public Enemies rolls on, its central concern as a love story with a crime drama backdrop becomes increasingly clear and impactful, but the peripheral idea of who and what make our national myths, of some kernel of truth beneath the official story, never fades from view.
During the Depression-era time when the film is set, a rogues' gallery of characters were, in hindsight, the somewhat unlikely celebrities of the day. With Dillinger as the most famous and beloved among the public, these criminals were spotted constantly and guilty of more indiscretions than humanly possible. Newspapers and, in turn, readers couldn't get enough, perhaps living vicariously through the various bank robberies. One sequence in particular in Mann's film addresses this commandingly by having the freshly apprehended Dillinger flown from Miami back to the Midwest amid hordes of flash photography and movie cameras. It's the one scene in the movie that most resembles what we expect to see from a period piece, and the rationale might have been, again, this overwhelming nature of celebrity that ultimately transcends its subjects. The decades since have ushered in new levels of aggression, but the ridiculousness of the spectacle is largely unchanged. When he finally enters the jail, after a car ride down streets lined by a fawning public, an impromptu press conference convenes with Dillinger holding court in handcuffs. He smiles, charms and provides plenty of quotes before cutting the whole thing off, a total manipulation by the man otherwise incapacitated. Dillinger is always in control.
While behind bars, the man with the unexplained scar gets a brief visit from his dogged pursuer, federal agent Melvin Purvis (played convincingly and with understated gravity by Christian Bale). Depp entertainingly overacts here, in contrast to a performance that's otherwise more soulful than might be expected, but the scene is both the only encounter of any length between the two men and one of the more instructive exchanges in the film. Dillinger exudes confidence in questioning Purvis, somewhat between the lines, on his commitment and capabilities when the job involves the death of a colleague. "It's the eyes, ain't it," the criminal asks his counterpart, referencing the passage between life and death for a bullet-riddled man. Though Purvis doesn't respond, the audience knows he's affected. Mann paints the G-Man as determined, but sensitive to life and death and right and wrong in a way that his boss J. Edgar Hoover (an eccentric, time-warped Billy Crudup) does not. Unlike Mann's comparatively simplistic treatment of Al Pacino's cop and Robert De Niro's crook in Heat, the two men at the center of Public Enemies are defined as much by their differences as they are their similarities.
It's tempting to play auteur games and obsess over the minutiae of Mann's defining work in the crime drama genre. With a debt to Jean-Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah, Mann has no less than mastered the fascinating relationship we have with those who break the law and those who try to bring them to justice. Men, professional and focused, typically populate his work. His films often bring to mind several others while still sitting confidently as unique experiences on their own. The vastly underrated Miami Vice, Mann's previous work, effectively told us most everything we needed to know about his ideal protagonists. You'll find stray familiarities from Mann's other films in Public Enemies, but it can hardly be overemphasized that this new film offers more than simple retreads and further canvassing across the same grounds. For the first time since possibly Thief, the 1981 film starring James Caan, Mann uses Public Enemies to primarily explore not just the criminal - and it should be stated clearly that Dillinger was hardly a gangster in the traditional sense of the word and really little more than a highly skilled robber of banks - but also his relationship with a woman.
In Thief, Caan's character desired normalcy with the woman played by Tuesday Weld but that was really just a single aspect of the larger plot. The more seen of Public Enemies, whether in a single viewing or on repeat trips, it becomes obvious that the absolute main intention is to convey a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Regardless of how this might play to those who purchase home entertainment based on how loud the booms are, the ill-fated relationship actually boosts the film into more poignant territory, adding a sadness so heartfelt and sincere it becomes far more affecting than one could possibly expect from a Michael Mann film. There's a sense of doom that permeates this relationship, and, yet, it's not based on any internal volatility. The foreboding comes as a result of the parallel manhunt Purvis insists on carrying out. This obsessive pursuit, directly ordered by Hoover and far more concerned with public relations than public safety, seals Dillinger's fate, taking Billie's along for the ride.
(Possible spoilers for those unfamiliar with the events in the film.)
Should we be displeased or angry that Mann gives Dillinger an epic death complete with beautifully swelling music and blood spilling onto the sidewalk? That would be the rub, apparently. The final scene, of Stephen Lang's Winstead telling Billie the last words he understood from the dying Dillinger, is remarkably manipulative and still hurtful in its insistence on making you feel this death of a man through the tearful eyes of the woman he loved and who loved him back. Mann keeps the camera on Cotillard as she sits there, helpless and no longer defiant but now just in pain. It's a powerful image, and indicative of Public Enemies indeed being a love story more than one primarily concerned with crime or criminals. These two outsiders, he of the dead mother and abusive father and she of the half-breed lineage with little prospects for the kind of life he could give her, enjoy a similarly fate-challenged existence as the principals of Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night, and that quick connection is such an important part of Mann's film that you absolutely have to recognize it to appreciate in full what he's doing here. Public Enemies doesn't ask us to reconcile John Dillinger's crimes with his life and death so much as it pleads to remind us of the circumstances - from Purvis as pawn in Hoover's battle for the bureau's legitmacy and necessity in the press to the consequences of one dead body after another. The sheer brutality of the whole thing is made clear both emotionally and physically, blood on the sidewalk and tears on the cheek.