June 2024

Public Enemies (2009)

DIRECTOR: Michael Mann

CAST: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Stephen Lang, Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor, David Wenham, Leelee Sobieski, Branka Katic, Channing Tatum


Public Enemies is not the first film to portray legendary bank robber John Dillinger, but it’s the most high-profile and the most accomplished, but certain elements keep it from gangster genre classic status, not least of which is that director Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) elects to film the events in docudrama style instead of aiming for grandeur and glamor.  It could be argued that Public Enemies is an independent art film masquerading as a gangster epic, and how audiences react to that will determine how absorbed they become by the film’s content. 

1933: While most of the country is in the grip of the Great Depression, bank robbers like John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) are in their heyday.  A short time after parole, Dillinger returns to the Michigan City, Indiana prison to make an audacious bust of his fellow gang members.  A few equally brazen, broad daylight bank robberies later, and Dillinger is declared Public Enemy Number 1 by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), young director of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (later to be Federal Bureau of Investigation—FBI), who appoints Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), fresh from blowing away Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), to the task of hunting down Dillinger.  Purvis prides himself on methods that were cutting edge by the standards of the day—wiretapping, recording conversations, tracing purchases—but his men are inexperienced, and some embarrassingly clumsy blundering allows Dillinger to escape on multiple occasions and costs a couple of lives when they stumble into a violent encounter with Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham).  Determined to prevent further humiliations for the Bureau, Purvis brings in more street-smart Texas Rangers including Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), and later, facing Dillinger’s continuing elusiveness and pressure from an impatient Hoover, resorts to torture of captured Dillinger associates, methods that clearly go against his personal sensibilities.  Meanwhile, Dillinger begins a head-over-heels love affair with half-French half-Native American coat check girl Billie Frechette (Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard), who despite her initial wariness and against her better judgment, falls for Dillinger’s dashing rogue charms.  But when the mob turns its back on Dillinger for the unwelcome heat he attracts, desperation forces him into an uneasy alliance with the loose cannon Baby Face, and as the noose tightens he heads toward his inevitable demise outside of the Biograph Theater in the company of hooker Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski) and his betrayer Anna Sage (Branka Katic).

Public Enemies is not a biopic of John Dillinger. Rather, Michael Mann has elected to film it as a near docudrama reenactment of the final months of the pursuit of John Dillinger.  Mann dispenses with exposition and background info, throwing us straight into the action with Dillinger’s audacious prison breakout and seldom pausing for breath from then on out.  The biggest problem with this, and with the film overall, is the lack of context and explanation.  We don’t learn any background about Dillinger except what he rattles off to Billie in one rapid-fire sentence, and we learn absolutely nothing about Melvin Purvis, as if he doesn’t exist outside of FBI headquarters.  Famous historical characters like J. Edgar Hoover, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd are onscreen for at least most of one scene before it’s made expressly clear who they are.  Later, a lot of names are tossed at us, like Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and Frank Nitti (Bill Camp), but without much explanation of who these people are, or what their connection is to Dillinger.  Numerous subtexts are left unexplored.  For being the predominant reason Dillinger was embraced as a Robin Hood figure by the general public for targeting banks, the most visible “villains” of the time, the Great Depression is scarcely mentioned.  We see how the Mafia closes its previously open doors to Dillinger when it decides bank robbers like him are wild cards who disrupt the orderly, businesslike way they prefer things and bring too much heat, and later it’s implied in a vague sort of way that Frank Nitti conspires with Purvis and the feds to serve up Dillinger, but in such a fleeting and poorly elaborated on way that we’re not sure exactly what Nitti’s hand in Dillinger’s demise is.  For a while, the way we’re thrown into the middle of the action with no expository preamble and none forthcoming makes us feel like we’ve walked into the middle of a movie that started about an hour ago, and scenes fly by at a rapid-fire clip—the prison breakout, the gang at a safe house, Purvis running down Pretty Boy Floyd, Hoover before Congress requesting funds—without clear context or relation to each other, making the movie feel episodic and fragmented.  The second half of the movie is stronger than the first, and a significant reason is because we’re orienting ourselves to things, getting characters straight, and getting a handle on what’s going on and who these people are.

In keeping with his docudrama tone, Mann has elected to film the majority of Public Enemies with handheld cameras and HD film, a process he started with Collateral and expands on here.  A significant part of one’s enjoyment and absorption in the movie will depend on how much or how little off-putting you find it to have characters followed around with the film looking as though camcorders are recording close in front of their faces.  If you find the restless camera, abrupt close-ups, and quick cutting shots of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films disorienting, you will have issues with Public Enemies, while others praise the feel that Mann is recording history by following it around with a camcorder, feeling it plunges them into the action with an intimacy and an immediacy.

While the way Mann has elected to bring the story to the screen is a debatable choice, Public Enemies is a lavishly mounted technical production. While certain events are condensed or shifted chronologically, it is acknowledged by Dillinger biographers as the most historically accurate version of the story so far onscreen.  The shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge uses actual rooms used by Dillinger, and the climax at the Biograph Theater is meticulously recreated, even including footage from Manhattan Melodrama.  Mann’s meticulous faithfulness in recreation even extends to dressing Dillinger’s betrayer, Anna Sage (Branka Katic), given the rather inaccurate name in legend as “The Lady In Red”, in the accurate white blouse and orange skirt.

Mann draws a few unsubtle parallels between the movie’s time and ours. In particular, the scenes in which Hoover clearly (without quite outright saying so, of course) gives Purvis the green light to torture prisoners, and the scenes in which agents abuse an already badly injured Dillinger associate, and later abuse and intimidate Billie in an attempt to force her to reveal Dillinger’s location, are impossible not to be viewed without sounding extremely familiar with some of the modern tactics in the “War on Terror”.  Mann also makes a couple points about celebrity, or the myth of celebrity, and the power of the media and popular perception, with Dillinger going out of his way to cultivate his Robin Hood persona and on the flip side, Hoover using Dillinger’s crime spree to convince a skeptical government that expanding his powers is necessary.

But despite his ambition, Mann’s approach to the events is low-key, unglamorous, and businesslike. He’s not aiming for the over-the-top grand heroism of something like The Untouchables, nor the operatic grandeur of The Godfather, but something grittier and closer to the dirt.  Neither Dillinger’s gang nor the FBI has clean hands, with Dillinger and his men seemingly unconcerned with those hurt in the pursuit of their thrills, and the Feds resorting to brutal methods, most notably the beating of Billie, to hunt Dillinger down.  It’s only in his theorizing of what Dillinger’s last words might have been, that Mann clearly crosses the line into overt romanticizing.

Johnny Depp has done his share of dramatic acting, but lately he’s become so identified with off-kilter campy parts like Jack Sparrow that his restrained, serious performance as John Dillinger feels like a change of pace.  Depp’s performance is subdued and controlled, keeping Dillinger’s inner core hidden beneath smoldering good looks and matinee idol charisma and charm.  Depp’s Dillinger is not glorified, and the violence of his bank robberies and prison escapes is not glossed over, but we also see sympathetic qualities, chiefly his fierce loyalty to his men and to Billie (although in Billie’s case his devotion has a strong streak of possessiveness).  He prefers to avoid excess violence, disliking associating with the likes of Baby Face Nelson, and obviously fancies himself a gentleman bandit, although when he stops to tell a bank customer “we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours, put it away”, and turns down associate Alvin Karpis’ (Giovanni Ribisi) suggestion of a kidnapping and ransom by saying “the public doesn’t like kidnappings”, we’re not sure whether any of it is genuine compunction or PR concern with the Robin Hood-like image he has cultivated of himself. There’s a little of a troublemaking boy who never grew up in Depp’s Dillinger, a man who freely admits he has no retirement or getaway plans, brushing off questions by saying “we’re having so much fun today, we’re not even thinking about tomorrow”.  For Dillinger, there is only the moment, right now, where he lives for the thrill of the game.  When he climactically sits and watches Manhattan Melodrama and watches Clark Gable’s electric chair-bound gangster remark, “die the way you lived, all of a sudden, don’t drag it out”, by his expression we sense he approves, maybe even is aware that he is headed toward a similar doom and wouldn’t really have it any other way.  Meanwhile, in one of Mann’s more poetically ironic moments, the Feds wait outside for life to imitate art.

Compared to Depp’s juicy turn as a famously flamboyant, charismatic bank robber, Christian Bale gets the inherently less interesting role of the dogged, somber G-man tracking him down. Heat took the time to equally develop cop and robber, but that’s not the case here.  Aside from being a dogged FBI agent, we know virtually nothing about Purvis, and he’s not given the chance to develop into a fleshed out character.  It’s unsurprising that Purvis was the original inspiration for Dick Tracy; he is the perfect stereotype of the upright, hard-nosed, straight arrow lawman hunting down criminals with single-minded determination.  Bale looks the part, and plays it with a steely-eyed stoicism, but he’s relegated to a rather one-dimensional and thankless role.

Marion Cotillard, the only major female role among gritty hard-nosed men, uses her expressive face and luminous eyes to good effect, making Billie beguiling enough that we can buy she enchants even the hard-bitten Dillinger, and also provides virtually the only couple emotionally affecting moments.  In the supporting cast, Stephen Graham steals a couple scenes with panache as the maniacally gung-ho Baby Face Nelson, Stephen Lang is the hard-bitten Texas Ranger Winstead, and Billy Crudup gives a smarmy portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover, who in some ways is the most odious character in the movie.  Everyone else is kind of “there”, with the members of Dillinger’s gang, including Stephen Dorff and David Wenham, all kind of blending together, except maybe for Jason Clarke as his right-hand man Red.  Giovanni Ribisi and Lili Taylor’s appearances amount to basically cameos, and sharp-eyed viewers may spot Shawn Hatosy (as one of Purvis’ young agents), Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin (as a bank robbery hostage), Matt Craven (as one of the Texas Rangers), and an almost unrecognizable Channing Tatum in an early cameo as Pretty Boy Floyd.

As is to be expected from the director of Heat, the gunfights are the high points of the movie, shot with explosive energy, the rat-a-tat-tat of the Tommy guns providing a ferociously pounding rhythm.  The centerpiece shootout in the movie is the Federal ambush on Baby Face Nelson’s hideout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, starting with a shootout through the walls and windows of the lodge, followed by a chase through the woods, and finally and most thrillingly, a car chase with Dillinger and Purvis blasting barrages of gunfire at each other while standing on their running boards.  There are several standout sequences.  One comes when Dillinger and accomplices have just escaped, with relative ease, from a prison dubbed the toughest in Indiana, in the sheriff’s (Lili Taylor) personal car, no less.  They sit, in full view of anyone who would bother to look closely enough, in front of a red light that seems to take ages to change.  The scene in the movie that most borders on brilliance comes when Dillinger sits in a theater and a public service announcement suddenly comes on warning that Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, could be the man sitting next to you, and instructs every audience member to look to their right, then look to their left.  Dillinger’s mug shot appears helpfully onscreen, and the theater lights come on full blast, illuminating Dillinger in ominous obviousness.  Everyone dutifully glances right, then left.  Dillinger, staring straight ahead, goes almost supernaturally unnoticed, hiding in plain sight.  Dillinger’s last almost supernaturally lucky and most almost suicidally brazen moment is near the end of the film, as he strolls casually into FBI headquarters and peruses the series of photographs on the walls chronicling the history of his gang.  Before sauntering back out, he can’t help but ask the score of the few men present, huddled around a radio describing a game.  They answer and barely glance at him.  Does Dillinger on some level have a death wish, having no interest in living into peaceful old age and wanting to die young and as fast as he lived, or is he simply a compulsive thrill seeker who can’t resist tempting the fates?

Maybe expecting deep character developments would run contrary to the in the moment immediacy Mann is trying to generate. By the movie’s end, we still know next to nothing about Melvin Purvis, and really not much beyond the basics about John Dillinger, but we feel like we’ve had a fly on the wall point of view and joined them along the ride.  Public Enemies has structural and technical issues, but it’s often engaging and occasionally captivating, even if not as consistently as it perhaps could have been.