It’s all about immersion. It’s all about historical context and accuracy. It’s all about character and the defiant need to stay true to same. And in the end, it’s about the past, about the United States struggling through the grips of the Great Depression and the rogue bank robber who captured a nation’s sullied imagination – as well as attention from the number one crime buster on the block. To hear director Michael Mann discuss it, his 2009 Summer spectacle Public Enemies stands as nothing short of the last word on John Dillinger and the post-incarceration crime spree that led to his legend. It’s not about myth (though some of that is mixed in here). It’s not about star power (though he does corral Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his two main leads). And it’s definitely not about big bang production value action or thrills.
No, for the filmmaker responsible for bringing a music video stylization to the big screen, Public Enemies is about virtual cinematic time travel. It’s about controverting the audience’s expectation when it comes to period pieces and actually making a movie seemingly set within that particular era. From the clothes and the locations to the jargon and jive (as well as the undeniable influence of information depravation), Mann wanted to take his digital cameras, set them up in the same places John Dillinger and his gang haunted, the bring those ghosts back to life. Though the results often don’t match the ambitions expressed by the director (who is revelatory in his accompanying audio commentary offered on the new Blu-ray release) he does have one obvious point. Public Enemies is unlike any gangster film you’ve ever seen – for good, for uneven, and sometimes, for reasons only the auteur and his actors can fully understand.
The story takes place in 1933, during the heart of the worst economic times in America’s history. With banks acting as the main villain in the citizenry’s financial downfall, an outlaw like Dillinger (Depp) is romanticized and revered. After spending nine years in jail for a petty crime, he returns to the real world ready to live it up while tearing it down. Along with cohorts Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Charles Makley (Christian Stolte), he scours the Midwest, stealing money and securing his contacts. One night, he meets the lovely Billie Frenchette (Marion Coitllard) and soon the two are inseparable. Never thinking about his future, Dillinger continues his criminal ways, much to the chagrin of the local Chicago mob, and most importantly, the FBI.
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), desperate to catapult his tiny agency into the big leagues, puts top G-Man Melvin Purvis (Bale) on the case. Having apprehended Pretty Boy Floyd, the director feels this is his best bet to catch Dillinger. Naturally, things don’t go well at first, the modern day bandit slipping through the FBI’s fingers at every turn. But soon, many of his men start dying, and it’s not long before Dillinger and Frenchette are cornered in a Phoenix hotel. She is let go. He is imprisoned, but manages to escape. With few left to rely on, Dillinger hooks up with the volatile Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and soon, the new gang is in a horrific firefight at a secluded wilderness lodge. Eventually, Purvis makes a deal with a local madam. She will lure Dillinger out in the open to prevent her deportation. They will then take him down.
The FBI’s chance comes on 22 July, 1934, at a downtown movie theater.
At first glance, Public Enemies is a lot like that lame 1991 movie Mobsters starring Christian Slater, Costas Mandylor, Richard Greico, and Patrick Dempsey. It has all the trappings of a Tiger Beat version of Untouchables folklore, glamorous names and A-list faces filling in for individuals for whom reality has a more honest, and homelier, truth. But once you get past the superstar status of many in the cast and concentrate on what Michael Mann is doing here, the superficiality slowly fades away. In its place are artistry, authenticity, and an attention to detail which helps to override the occasional lapses in the narrative. Listening to the filmmaker during his discussion fills in many of the blanks the basic storyline skips over. In fact, Mann even mentions a quick introductory read of the book upon which the movie is based in order to provide the necessary context his two hour plus drama could not begin to touch.
You can see it several times throughout the course of this otherwise fine film. When Channing Tatum turns up as Pretty Boy Floyd, you wonder why this particular criminal is treated like a cameo. Later on, when Dillinger is making his date with destiny, Leelee Sobieski turns up as the hoodlum’s escort for the night. This happens frequently in Public Enemies – just as we are settling in and getting background on the individuals up on the screen, another interesting but explained person (Lili Taylor as Sheriff Lillian Holley) shows up to snatch the movie away. We are desperate for more – more insight, more bank robberies, more Tommy Gun sputtering battles. Instead, Mann focuses on his forward narrative momentum, driving Depp and Bale to their mostly indirect clash. Whether it was an issue of trying to deal with too much or some manner of editorial confusion, Public Enemies needed to me more in-depth – or just less busy.
Still the performances are top notch, and on the small screen Blu-ray experience, you can really invest in what Depp and Bale are doing. This is not some manner of scene hogging grandstanding. We don’t see the men falling into their characters like mannered Method wannabes. Instead, all easily play into Mann’s desire to be immersive, to actually live in the moment, preferably in the actual places these people existed in as well. All throughout the commentary track we hear how the production repurposed old jails, found identical residences, and used the preservationist element within the many Midwestern locales to create a sense of sameness. Heck, they even film in the original Little Bohemia lodge, in the actual room Dillinger stayed in. From prison cells to city streets, Public Enemies is nothing if not respectful of the past.
Still, there is something slightly amiss about the movie overall. It never builds into the kind of epic you imagine Mann believes it to be. Even with all the ornate backdrops and “you are there” intimacy of the digital camera approach (which looks startling on the 1080p image transfer), there is a beat or two that’s off. Whenever Crudup’s Hoover steps up to sermonize, we keep waiting for something more impactful. When Purvis leads an unsuccessful stake out of Dillinger and his crew, we expect something more than a shoulder shrug sense of defeat. Of course, according to Mann, this is how it was. This is the way it happened (even with a few factual flubs to streamline the narrative), and therefore, this is the way is will be. Interestingly enough, Martin Scorsese can take a similar sensationalized true story of organized crime and turn it into masterworks like Goodfellas and Casino. Public Enemies should be as grand. Instead, it’s merely good.