Public Enemies Review
The film review below has been copied from clydefro jones’ Public Enemies Cinema Review. I have presented it here alongside my review of the Universal Blu-ray release purely for completeness.
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 legitimacy 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.
Mann has been widely criticised for embracing Digital Video in his recent productions and Public Enemies being shot almost entirely in HD (there are a small number of 35mm shots) proved to be a bone of contention amongst film fans. The problem is that HD-video just doesn’t look film-like enough for many viewers’ sense of aesthetics - especially the way Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti use it – and you can certainly see that in this Blu-ray transfer, in particular the way the tonal range tends to look restrictive in certain shots. Contrast looks a little high and highlights can appear blown out, while brightness can appear low because Mann and Spinotti favour using low light conditions in many sequences. This results in a rather gloomy look at times with reasonably low shadow detail (although perhaps more than you’d get from film) but black levels are very strong and only falter on one or two occasions. I did spot some minor brightness flickering in a number of shots, and while there are instances of it occurring earlier in the film, it seems to become more frequent from around the 90minute mark onwards - this is of course, only in the darker scenes. I think the flickering is down to the cinematography/technology of the film and not an encoding issue as you can see the same thing in the film clips featured in the Extra Features present on this disc.
Colours are especially vibrant and have no noise issues; the green scenery of Purvis’ introductory scene positively pop off the screen, while the blue skies and yellowy-grey dirt of Indiana in the opening act look gorgeous – blood too looks very bold. Skin tones look pretty natural, but can occasionally look a little reddish or yellow, or even pallid depending on the look of each scene. Although most people associate Digital Films with an absence of film grain, the truth is that video noise or artificially added grain can give pretty much the same effect. Throughout Public Enemies, not only can you see an extremely light layer of grain/noise that sometimes becomes a heavier texture, you may also spot the odd instance of print damage - mostly in the form of a single nick or fleck here or there. It’s possible that Mann/Spinotti have added grain/noise/damage to the image to blur the lines between digital and film, but they used Sony CineAlta F23 cameras to shoot most of the film and that records to a HD-Cam SR tape, so it’s very likely there was some infinitesimal damage to that tape.
Image detail is exceptionally high, with fine detail being particularly impressive and unaffected by any signs of noise reduction. In certain close ups you can see every pore of the actors skins, like the texture of the back of Christian Bale’s neck in the sequence when Purvis guns down pretty boy Floyd, to the faintly blotchy complexion of Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. Some shots exhibit blocking in the horizontal and/or the vertical domain, which could be down to some form of upscaling maybe, but then I guess there could have a different number of reasons and I don’t exactly have a wealth of experience in watching HD films. In general the image looks a little over-sharpened with bright Edge Enhancement a frequent nuisance throughout the first half of the film.
Public Enemies is encoded using the VC-1 codec with a video bit rate that averages out to a moderate 25.56Mbps, for the most part encoding is excellent and you shouldn’t be distracted by any intrusive blocking during regular playback, if however you pause and scour then you will spot some compression issues like minor blocking and the occasional instance of banding.
In the audio section you will find a choice of English DTS-HD MA 5.1, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DTS 5.1, and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Descriptive Video Service track which has a voiceover man describing what’s going on in each scene. For the purposes of this review I sat down to watch the English DTS-HD MA track and was suitably impressed with its mixture of subtle restraint and piercing power during the action sequences. I should point out that there are a few scenes (mostly in the opening act) where dialogue can sound muffled and hollow, but this seems to be down the original recording rather than any deficiencies in the track itself, as the DTS-HD sound is reference quality. Bass is very tight and forceful enough during the action sequences to bring real might and authenticity to the shootouts, with the sound design really bringing the most out of these shootouts. Audio dynamics are generally excellent and the sound field subtly envelopes the viewer, drawing them into the action sequences even more. Public Enemies also has an excellent soundtrack that features Jazz and Blues numbers and a beautiful score from Elliot Goldenthal that recollects the Hollywood sound of yesteryear, all of which have tremendous depth and clarity on this Blu-ray.
Optional subtitles are included in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Universal have spruced up their menu design to throw a bit more information at the first time browser. The look of the menus is exactly the same, but now you have an optional “Ticker” which is a small banner protruding from the top right of the menu screen that displays information regarding the interactive and BD-Live features of the disc. Another all new feature that I haven’t come across on Universal BD before is the inclusion of a D-BOX MOTION CODE, which works alongside a D-BOX integrated motion system that’s equipped with a Blu-ray PC drive. Simply insert this disc into said drive and it will copy over files into the D-BOX controller to enable the system (a mechanical seat) to provide motion feedback as you watch the film. D-BOX systems come with high-end price tags, so I am unable to review this aspect of the disc!
New gimmicks aside, Universal have included a small but very informative selection of featurettes that provide lots of background information on the history of Public Enemies’ subjects. My only complaint regarding these predominantly talking-heads pieces is that by segmenting them across a handful of features you end up with a fair amount of repeated content, and I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps a single feature length documentary would’ve yielded more streamlined and engrossing results. Here’s the rundown:
Please Note: Unless otherwise stated, all extra featurettes on this disc are presented in 1080i 60Hz VC-1 video and English DD2.0 audio with optional subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Feature Commentary with Director Michael Mann - Mann’s commentary is extremely dry and very revealing about the real-life history of Public Enemies and the psychology of its characters: Dillinger in particular. This is by far the overriding focus of the piece, and such is the depth and detail of Mann’s knowledge that it feels more like an Historian’s commentary than a Filmmaker one. It’s an excellent track and it was particularly fascinating to see the depths to which Mann was aware of all the background incidents and conditions that combined into creating Dillinger: The Bank Robber and Purvis: The Manhunter. In terms of setting the context of various scenarios in the film, Mann’s commentary is extremely enlightening and will make you want to revisit Public Enemies at the nearest opportunity to see if you can pick up on all the subtleties of character that Mann points out. Saying that, a large chunk of the background information Mann imparts simply isn’t there in the finished product, which begs the question of whether the director has a longer cut locked away somewhere with possible future release in mind – although the finished product feels “finished” enough to me already.
Larger Than Life: Adversaries
- A featurette on Purvis and Dillinger that is driven by input from Mann, Depp, Bale, Historians, and Purvis’ son: Alston. The individual interviews are intercut with footage from the finished film, behind-the-scenes clips, and archive footage of the real men in question. It’s an engrossing featurette that is only hindered by a short length of 10minutes.
Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies - Lots of behind-the-scenes footage with Mann talking about the project in the same interview session that’s featured in all the featurettes on this disc. The one problem this feature has is that for most of its 20minute runtime Mann doesn’t really say much that he doesn’t state in his film commentary, so if you’ve already listened to that prior to watching this featurette you may find yourself itching to hit the fast-forward button. Luckily the featurette also features input from the Cast and Crew on working with Mann, and towards the end the subject moves to a detailed discussion on how they shot the film’s various bank robberies.
Last of the Legendary Outlaws - An excellent featurette that looks at Dillinger’s outlaw status and ethics. It starts off charting the history of bank robberies in America from the Wild West days to the Dillinger era, then focuses more specifically on Dillinger’s deeds and how they were researched and filmed. There’s a lot more archive footage here and at one point we’re shown a clip from the actual Edward Saager interview that was conducted after Dillinger broke out of Crown Point in 1934. Unfortunately, as with all the best featurettes on this disc, the runtime is simply too short at just under 09minutes.
On Dillinger’s Trail: The Real Locations - This feature discusses the pains Mann went to in order to shoot at the exact (and by exact I’m talking right down to the millimetre in places) locations that many of the famous events concerning Dillinger and Purvis actually took place. We have extensive behind-the-scenes footage here and a greater focus on the production crew’s work on the film. Strangely, this featurette is presented using the AVC codec and is the only video footage on this disc to not use VC-1.
Criminal Technology - A look at the tools and methodologies that both the Dillinger Crew and the FBI implemented to get their respective jobs done. We get the lowdown on the “state-of-the-art” weaponry and vehicles the Dillinger Crew could afford and utilised in the business of robbing banks and fighting off lawmen, which makes for fascinating viewing.
Gangster Movie Challenge
- This is an interactive quiz that’s comprised of 6 rounds featuring 10 questions each on various gangster films, starting with a round on Public Enemies then American Gangster, Casino, Carlito’s Way, Scarface, and finally back to Public Enemies. Questions are random and different each time you play (I didn’t play enough to get a feel for how many individual questions there are in total) and when you get a question wrong it does not reveal the answer so as to preserve the longevity of the game a little. When you do get a question right you’re treated with a little factoid on the answer, which makes this feature surprisingly informative. You can save and share your final score across BD-Live, but the questions take so long to load that the quiz soon becomes quite tedious, and you may not make it to the end before losing your patience. I gave up after half an hour og only progressing to the mid-point of Round Two, so I can’t say if you’re treated to a fancy Easter Egg at the end or not.
My Scenes - If you already own a Universal BD title then you should be familiar with this feature, you use the coloured buttons on your remote control to place bookmarks in the film so you can jump to any scene/sequence/clip from the film that has been marked out using those bookmarks.
U-Control: Historical Interactive Timeline - I thought this would be your typical text-based factoids but it’s actually narrated video footage giving the historic details of the film’s events, edited together with interviews with historians and the cast/crew. Definitely worth checking out, but be sure to use the provided chapter stops to skip straight to the Timeline footage rather than faffing about watching the whole film.
U-Control: Picture in Picture - Similar to the Interactive Timeline, only this one concentrates on the details of the production and is made up of behind-the-scenes footage combined with interviews with the cast and crew. You get to spend a lot more time with the crew here than in the featurettes.
A film that has divided opinions right down the middle is given a pretty impressive Blu-ray release from Universal. Extra Features are very informative and well worth checking out, while the audiovisual presentation is only let down a tiny amount by some heavy handed sharpening techniques.