A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #10


2009, PG-13, 140 mins.


John Dillinger: Johnny Depp / Melvin Purvis: Christian Bale / Billie Frechette: Marion Cotillard / "Red" Hamilton: Jason Clarke / Agent Carter Baum: Rory Cochrane / J. Edgar Hoover: Billy Crudup / Homer Van Meter: Stephen Dorff / Charles Winstead: Stephen Lang / Alvin Karpis: Giovanni Ribisi / "Baby Face" Nelson: Stephen Graham / Anna Sage: Branka Katic

Directed by Michael Mann / Screenplay by Ronan Bennett, Mann and Ann Biderman, based on the book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough

There is one key sequence that cuts to the heart behind Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES.  

During it we see John Dillinger - at the height of his mythic status as a cocky, charismatic, and sharp-tongued rogue - attempt to seduce a woman he barely knows.  He simply wants her at his side at all times.  The beautiful lady in question, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) informs him that she has difficulty dropping everything to instantly be by his side.  She tells him that she hardly knows him.  He responds with a cold, calculating, and authoritative enunciation and confidence: “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars…and you.  What else do you need to know?” 

That line reinforces the sweeping brilliance of Mann’s overall approach to demystifying the legend of John Herbert Dillinger.   PUBLIC ENEMIES – based ostensibly on Bryan Burrough’s exhaustively researched PUBLIC ENEMIES: AMERICA'S GREATEST CRIME WAVE AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI: 1933-34 – does not laboriously waste time in dealing with the entire arc of the criminal's life.  We never learn about his childhood, the precipitating factors that influenced his later crime career, nor is any attempt made to rationalize or explain his psychology as an infamous bank robber.  That’s the stuff of routine, dime-a-dozen biopics.  Instead, Mann does the next best thing: he paints a challenging and absorbing portrait of the Depression-era criminal with a stark immediacy that never looks back.  It’s absolutely fundamental that Mann thrusts viewers aggressively into the film by beginning it with Dillinger’s audacious jailbreak from a prison in Lima.  At this time his reputation and Robin Hood-esque stature had cemented itself into the pop culture milieu of the times: he was simply the country's most celebrated gangsters.  The film does not need to explain why he was followed and cherished, just that he was

Standard Dillinger fare would have chronicled the figure’s entire life, but Mann is not aiming for a completist spirit: he’s trying to capture a fragment of Dillinger's law-breaking history and interpret its essence.  PUBLIC ENEMIES is not deeply rooted in realism, per se, but rather aspires for an impressionistic vibe.  It neither overtly glamorizes nor vilifies Dillinger’s murderous and thieving ways: it attempts to effectively capture to look and feel of his times and exploits, and Mann is an unparalleled master of crafting atmosphere.  His Dillinger in the film is a frank speaking opportunist: when asked at one point what he wants in life, he matter-of-factly responds, “Everything…right now.”  This man simply lives in the moment, without much of a care in the world as to the future, let alone past the next big score.  It seems, in hindsight, highly appropriate that PUBLIC ENEMIES has an equally leisurely and nonchalant style and approach to the material.  It propels us right in the middle of a key moment in his life with a refreshing and exhilarating randomness and maintains a fever pitched, rat-ta-tat gusto and momentum right up until that fateful night outside Chicago’s Biograph Movie Theatre in July of 1934 . 

Mann’s techniques here seem to cheerfully disregard the polished and glossy big budget sheen that so many other large-scale historical biopics adhere to.  That is not to say that PUBLIC ENEMIES is not epic, but it’s just another category of intrepid and bold filmmaking.  Shooting in HD video instead of 35mm film and using his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann conveys a hypnotic and ethereal dreamlike allure to his vision of the past.  The set ups feel loose and improvisational, giving the film a documentary-styled sense of veracity.  The movement of the camera feels chaotic, but it nevertheless has a spontaneous fluidity; it it also intimate.  Mann places the camera tightly in close-ups, over the shoulders of characters, and sometimes even down the barrels of the Tommy guns themselves to help entrench audience members.  The camera careens in and out of scenes with a freewheeling and unsophisticated energy, which only further assists to heighten the film’s impressionistic veneer.  This workmanlike and low key aesthetic is one of the film’s unqualified triumphs: its suggests the evocative intrigue, limitless allure, and dark glamour of Dillinger’s lifestyle.  In a way, Mann’s choices behind the camera kind of mirror the mood and mindset of the main character.  A slick and lustrous looking film would have been lost on this figure, who lived life by the seat of his pants.   

Dillinger never lived in the past, nor does this film.

After Dillinger’s celebrated prison escape, the film shows how he and his gang journey to Chicago where he begins to become involved with the half Indian, half French Frechette., whom he quickly decides will be the love of his life.  As he continues one daring bank robbery after another, Dillinger becomes the fixation of FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup, who creepily morphs into his role with a snarled and sinister precision) who decides to appoint Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, in another reliably stern and commanding performance as the dapper and straight-arrowed G-man) as the head of a special task force that designed to bring Dillinger and his men to justice once and for all.  Purvis, despite having a chilling determination to rid the world of criminals altogether, has some very serious early setbacks in his attempts to apprehend Dillinger.  Like all good intrepid lawmen hell bent on dispatching justice, he learns form his mistakes and begins to discover how to turn misfortune into opportunity. 

Eventually, Dillinger is apprehended…again…in Crown Pointe and thrown in a jail that many of the time regarded as escape-proof.  Needless to say, Dillinger miraculously frees himself and returns to the Windy City.  Upon his return he learns that the city is now being overseen by the likes of Frank Nitti, who feel that Dillinger is bad for business.  This leads to a lack of decent alternatives for him, which forces him to form an uneasy and shaky alliance with the likes of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham).  As time passes and options begin to wear thin, a conspiracy of forces both within and outside Dillinger’s inner sanctum ultimately led to (no spoiler required here; this is history) him being gunned down by the FBI outside of a movie theatre.  The movie playing was the Clark Gable mob drama MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, where its main star - playing a racketeer facing death via the electric chair - utters at one point, “Die Like you live: all of a sudden!”  Depp’s Dillinger cracks a sly and mischievous smile as he sees this sequence on the silver screen; it’s also haunting moment, perhaps hinting that Dillinger knew that the walls of his world were closing in on him, but since the movies were now entrenched in glamorizing his brethren, then his own demise would allow his stature to live on indefinitely. 

PUBLIC ENEMIES, as stated, is a tour de force of first rate-production artifice.  The Chicago-born Mann has always been regarded as a painterly director that uses environments and scenery act as tertiary characters in their own right (he stirringly recreates 1930's Chicago using the real locations Dillinger encountered).  Mann also crafts individual moments of intensity and suspense, as is the case with the best-extended section of PUBLIC ENEMIES.  In a fierce and blood curdling action sequence that rivals the pulse pounding exchange of firearms in the Guggenheim Museum in this year’s THE INTERNATIONAL,  Mann does a bravura job of showcasing the 1934 FBI raid on Dillinger and his gang at Wisconsin’s Little Bohemia Lodge.  It is a harshly beautiful and gut-wrenching orgy of Tommy and shotgun fire set against the desolate backdrop of the nighttime sky.  Mann has always managed to be one of the foremost quarterbacks of manipulating and choreographing ballets of bullets and gore (see his seminal sequence in HEAT, for instance, or some of his lesser revered, but also fantastic, action set pieces in COLLATERAL and MIAMI VICE).  The thrill of the chase, the impending doom of close quartered gun fire exchanges, and the sense of unrelenting dread of who will die next…all of this Mann orchestrates in a masterful 15-minute show stopping sequence with the skill and precision of a taskmaster. 

The film has countless other individual scenes of fascination:  The second daring jailbreak, which showcases how Dillinger escaped the seemingly escape-proof prison using nothing more than a wooden replica of a gun and a whole lot of testosterone and gumption, is a marvel to see.  Perhaps the one scene that unquestionably cements Dillinger as a man incomparable nerve and serious cajones occurs during a later moment in the film where he decides to make an impromptu appearance at a police station and into the very office of Purvis’ task force.  He walks around quietly, observing and drinking in all of the details (he sees charts, photos of his buddies that have been killed, and notes on squad strategy) and even manages to have a quick exchange with some of the officers that are listening to ball game on the radio….then he brazenly walks out.  Perhaps equally compelling is a short – but devilishly sly – scene where Dillinger and his men are enjoying a pre-movie newsreel that eventually comes to show a large photo of him filling up the screen with an ominous voice over informing the audience to look over each shoulder for fear that he could be sitting right next to them when they least expect it.  Dillinger, being steely eyed and collected, barely flinches when he sees his mug plastered on the silver screen; he does let out a wily and prideful smirk, not too dissimilar from the one he will later sport while watching Gable.   

There is an undercurrent of darkness to the film in the sense that Dillinger maintains an impenetrable and invincible ego throughout his law-breaking career that ultimately got the better of him.  I think that’s why Johnny Depp is able to so thoroughly win over audiences with his performance.  What’s important is that he does not go for camera-mugging theatrics, nor does he play this larger-than-life mythic figure in broad, showboating strokes.  Depp instead creates a surprisingly low-key and muted Dillinger that echoes what must have been the man’s inner sense of both romanticism and fatalism.  Depp is not interested in crafting a one-note villain nor a totally amiable anti-hero, but rather a conflicted, somewhat haunted and troubled soul that becomes so smitten with the excesses of his lifestyle that he must have known the end was near.  Yes, he was a rascally smart ass that dazzled newsmen and women with his easygoing manner and likeable, plainspoken wit, but Depp reassures us that his Dillinger is by no means a saint.  He was a killer and a thief, before everything else.

This is Depp’s film on a performance level, to be sure, but the supporting players as well bring much to the table.  Many have short-changed Christian Bale for giving a staunchly monotone and emotionless performance as the justice obsessed Purvis, but those critics fail to see that Bale strategically presents him as an icy and emotionally unflinching foil to the charming and easy-going Dillinger.  Bale’s rock-steady focus here, playing Purvis as a man of nearly impassable fortitude and resolve, is as important to the film as Depp’s more endearing performance.  Purvis is purposely one-note because he is a man of singular drives to end the reign of Dillinger and Bale thanklessly sells his role’s sense of impassive efficiency and unwavering commitment to the law.   

Marion Cotillard has the somewhat dubious task of essentially playing the trophy "dame" to Dillinger, and there is certainly a temptation to infer that any actress could have inhabited the role.  Without question, Cotillard is a ravishingly gorgeous on-screen presence that captivates the camera in every scene she appears in, and she certainly looks the part of her period character.  Yet, she also brings a beguiling and touching layer of melancholy to her part that would have been lost under the hands of a lesser actress.  She is able to craft believable and instant chemistry with Depp, which is not easy considering the shotgun nature of the romance.  And later moments when she experiences the unflinching brutality of a rough and loathsome police officer savagely beating the truth of Dillinger’s whereabouts out of her have a startling power.  Cotillard creates a woman of honor, loyalty, and impeachable resiliency…not as easy of a sell as many think. 

However, the real main attraction of PUBLIC ENEMIES is Michael Mann, whose fingerprints all over the film from the stunningly realized opening sequence to the fist clenching tension and intrigue of Dillinger’s final moments where he could cheat death no longer (the sign of a consummate directorial visionary, I think, is in one’s ability to create palpable suspense in scenes where the outcome is already a part of widespread historical knowledge, and Mann’s theatre-chair grabbing final sequence showcasing Dillinger’s death packs a resounding wallop).   PUBLIC ENEMIES is a fiercely disciplined, meticulous researched, exceptionally executed, and handsomely shot real-life gangster epic where Mann’s skill and understanding of the filmmaking craft really come to the forefront and keeps you in your seat.  The film’s loose, expressive, and spontaneous stylistic choices here are a perfect medicine for the bloated and wasteful indulgences of other recent crap-tacular summer fare (you can run all you want, Michael Bay and TRANSFORMERS 2, but you can’t hide).    PUBLIC ENEMIES is not an all-encompassing Dillinger biopic, nor should it be seen that way.  It is a film that effortlessly captures the emotional quintessence of Dillinger’s peak moment in history when the public made a killer and robber into a folklore legend.    Explaining his mythological stature with monotonous details would have been foolhardy, but Mann is a shrewd enough to understand that the best way to envision one of the 20th Century’s most beguiling and infamous men is to create an immaculate and memorable sense of mood and ambience.  

There's no wasteful and dull exposition, no examination of psychology or methodology, and no commentary on the criminal lifestyle:  PUBLIC ENEMIES just explodes on the screen and just comes blazing out at you without any recourse...much like Dillinger himself.

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