Public Enemies - Movie Review
By Anne Brodie Jul 1, 2009, 20:16 GMT
Based on the novel of the same name by Bryan Burrough. Tells the story of the most spectacular crime wave in American history: the two-year battle between J. Edgar Hoover\'s FBI and John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers in the 1930\'s. ...more
Slow as molasses in January, but what a stunning ride. Michael Mann’s meditation on the final chapter in John Dillinger’s life is mesmerising, recalling powerful images in earlier period gangster films like Bonnie and Clyde and the Assassination of Jesse James. It shares a golden, ‘what if?’ palette but creates its own bittersweet, nostalgic magic.
Once again the dirty thirties are idealised as a kind of nod to the high regard in which common folk held Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger’s Chicago gangsters. Both existed in sentimentalised worlds of domestic aspiration and sheltering nature as they tried to remember what it was like not to be on the run. The Depression is seen as a pretty time when anyone could get rich, which was anything but true.
Dillinger was as much a showman as kingpin, according to the film. Depp sails over a bank counter, rifle in hand, a flourish Dillinger stole from the movies. It’s a thrilling and photogenic. At a time when mid western banks were foreclosing homes and farms, these robbers were the new folk heroes. Dillinger had plenty of Depp-like charm, according to legend and easily won the favour of the public and even some authorities.
“I’m stealing from the bank, not you” he said. Variations of this line run through these films. He was murderer and a terrorist but was universally admired.
Mann chooses not to get too close to Dillinger portraying him as a man on a mission, at arm’s length, the only way others saw him. Despite the web of allegiances of the bank robber brotherhood, Depp’s Dillinger acknowledged his loneliness and unhappiness. It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating choice because we don’t ‘know’ him.
He’s the ultimate outsider, even amongst co-horts Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Creepy Karpis and the various toadying gangs he created. By 1934, the Midwestern brotherhood had a powerful enemy, J. Edgar Hoover, the crime czar who co-founded the FBI. He had them on watch and on the run.
Billy Crudup plays Hoover with stolid, self righteous smugness. He’s crisp, power drunk and excessively self-protective, driven by the belief that Dillinger’s continuous ingenious evasions were direct personal insults.
Christian Bale’s cool and controlled as famed Bureau agent Melvin Purvis, a conflicted man whose fame after Dillinger’s death, won Hoover’s wrath. Bale plays him fair, straight laced, a man who accepts that he’s superior in intelligence and morality to his bosses and doesn't lust after fame.
Oscar winner Marion Cotillard seems an odd choice to play Dillinger’s girlfriend until we see footage of Myrna Loy in a crucial scene.
Nann gathers a formidably talented supporting cast to flesh out this important American story – Stephen Lang, Tatum Channing, and Stephen Dorff, Yugoslavian actress Branka Katic, Giovanni Ribisi, and Shawn Hatosy. Even Diana Krall makes a musical appearance.
Cinematography and art direction are stunning, the choice of music top notch and Depp and his boys aren’t hard to look at. Public Enemies is a triumph of style over substance in one of the most visually exciting films in a while. Mann’s innovation, first seen in the Miami Vice series has meaning, cinematic if not personal.
From time to time, a pop culture line, or scene or thing will take its place in history and Public Enemies features such a scene. At the height of the hunt for Dillinger, he walks into the precinct, gets into an elevator with cops and proceeds alone to the John Dillinger Investigation room. He takes a look around at the photos of himself, evidence, charts, maps then talks sports to a couple of lunching lawmen. You can’t believe what you’re watching.
Mann doesn’t take a moral ground. He doesn’t praise or condemn Dillinger. He simply watches from the sidelines. He leaves the praising of the folk hero to modern day websites like the John Dillinger Died for You Society.
Written by Ronan Bennet, Michael Mann
Directed by Michael Mann
Opens July 1st
Runtime: 140 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for gangster violence and some language