Review: Public Enemies

Posted on July 4, 2009

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I’m not going to discuss the historical accuracy of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. If you’re interested in that as much as I am, you should read this. If all you want to know is that it looks good, moves quickly, and features lots of its stars’ cheekbones, it does. There’s your executive summary. If you want more, I’ve got it.

Dana Stevens asked, “So why is Public Enemies…so oddly unengaging?” The first answer is that Johnny Depp is miscast and never display’s Dillinger’s menace. I disagree. His actions at the opening prison break-out, and in the bank robberies, conveyed a thoughtful menace. His Dillinger isn’t mean because he has to be, he’s mean because he consciously chooses to be, and Depp conveys that internal life very well.

One of the places where I do agree is that too little time is spent on the social canvas of the time. We don’t understand why Dillinger robs banks, but won’t take the customers’ money. We don’t understand why the Bureau of Investigation exists but has to struggle for funding. We don’t understand why Dillinger was Public Enemy Number 1. Michael Mann leaves us to guess that Dillinger’s fame gave Bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup does a spectacular job, almost stealing the role of the movie’s villain) an opportunity to enhance the Bureau’s fame and status. Taking down Dillinger validated Hoover’s ideas and methods (for fighting crime), and made funding the Bureau easier – but we have to guess.

I’ve been watching Michael Mann’s work since Miami Vice (I went back and watched Thief and Band of the Hand years later). He has certain camera tricks that I expect to see. One of the classics is a very long, lingering shot where the story is told without movement or dialogue, but rather by one or two characters and their relationship to each other and the environment, in terms of their postures and positions. There’s a scene in Heat where the story is told by how Robert de Niro and his girlfriend fit into the environment, and how they stand in relation to each other. When I watched the scene, I found myself thinking, “Okay, I get it, move on already.” I didn’t notice any of that in Public Enemies. Repeat viewings might prove me wrong, but I doubt it, and I think that’s part of the problem with an otherwise fine film.

Michael Mann is too restrained in Public Enemies. He’s trying to tell the story of the last part of John Dillinger’s life, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time on related, supporting material. The film suffers because of it. I wanted to know more about Billie Frechette, why she fell for Dillinger, and why Dillinger fell so in love with her. I wanted more time spend on the love story – or for it to have less presence. Either would have been better. Mann gives us enough to whet our appetities, and then wheels away to another event.

Similarly, I wanted to know more about why the events were happening, not just that they were. Although I knew who Frank Nitti was, Mann throws him into the film and never explains who he is or why. Mann never develops Melvin Purvis – and Christian Bale deserves better, after the poorly written John Connor he had to play in Terminator Salvation. He never develops the Bureau of Investigation or J. Edgar Hoover. It’s a tribute, in fact, to the writers and actors that we care so much by the end of the movie.

So I don’t regret a penny of the matinee price I paid to see the film, and I’m glad I saw it in a theater, but if you want to see a great Michael Mann movie, see Heat or Thief.

Update: For more on Mann’s focus on the present and his treatment of women in his films, see here.

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Posted in: Movies