Public Enemies

Public Enemies (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Michael Mann
viewed: 07/18/09 at the California Theater, Berkeley, CA

After seeing the trailer for Michael Mann’s John Dillinger film, Public Enemies, I decided to prep by watching a couple of Dillinger films, Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945) and John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), as a primer in the lore of the notorious Depression Era gangster/bank robber.  Though, as I’ve noted before, my backwards approach to the Jesse James films turned to prove most interesting, this trope with Dillinger wasn’t nearly as much so, similar as they are in legend, criminality, anti-hero, and popular myth.

Michael Mann is certainly one of the more interesting directors working today.  Or at least, so a lot of people think.  I mean, even I was thinking that this material would be interesting in the hands of a notable contemporary director.  It’s ripe for the picking, legend, fact, fictions, hero and anti-hero.  And the film has perhaps its greatest comparison is Mann’s film Heat (1995), which the film has several potential parallels.  Many of Mann fans like Heat best of his films, and the notable comparison that I am aware of is the following of two major protagonists, the criminal and the cop who is trying to catch him, two notable actors who share very little screen time, one scene, while playing against one another throughout the film’s duration.  It’s clear that this is happening here as well, with Mann’s loyalties, while leaning toward Dillinger, are split in respect between the outlaw and the law.

I am not a Mann scholar, nor, do I think, a particular Mann fan, so I won’t go into this duality interest more than to recognize its presence.  In a sense, it’s a part of how I try to make sense of Mann’s film and its portrayal of the material.  A few things are blatantly clear: J. Edgar Hoover is a weak bastard and the creation of the FBI dubious at its birth, technology is changing both the criminal (interstate gambling and telecommunication) and the science of law enforcement, using more intellectual methodologies to ensnare and track wanted men, and that the 1930’s had style.  Mann gets most of his key ideas across in fairly clear, lingering moments, not to be lost on the audience.  Not really subtle to say the least.

The techonology angle is sort of interesting, as Mann does linger on the imagery of the mob and the growth of both organized crime and organized law enforcement.  But he sort of leaves it at that.  It’s a notable thing, leaving Dillinger’s brief time in the headlines as a soon-to-be thing of the past.  But it’s not his key focus, and so I don’t know that he takes it anywhere, though its a rich area to investigate.

Johnny Depp, probably the most charismatic actor of his generation, is remarkably lowkey throughout, perhaps paired with Christian Bale’s lawman Melvin Purvis, who seethes a bit less than the typical Bale role.  Dillinger, really, was a much more charismatic type, but also more of a character, toying with his pursuers, basking in his Robin Hood-like popularity.  Depp’s Dillinger is a decent man who does a dangerous job, but draws the line between outright violence and bank robbing.  He steals from the banks, who stole from the poor.  But he’s saddled with a love story, which becomes his main focus, through to his end.

The film is also, almost comically, obsessed with the sleek gorgeousness of Art Deco and 1920’s/1930’s style.  The men are all dapperly clad in nice suits and chic overcoats, bearing stylish Tommy guns.  The women, even wearing “a $3 dress”, still look like a million bucks.  And the location shooting is lavish in settings, each bank that is robbed looks like a palace or a church, huge, beautifully ornate, and powerful.  And this might have been a commentary if other things looked like shacks, but the cars are all sleek and gorgeous, even radio knobs have great style and character.  Shoot, just give them the Oscar for art design already!

I have to say, there is a lot going on and the film has a great parsibility, but what really is Mann’s point?  Some reviews I read of the film compared the breakdown in the banking system to the fall of the stock market that led to the Depression, a comparative point.  The banks are the bad guys.  The people that rob them are justified.  But that seems kinda shaky to me.  Mann seems most interested in the relationship of these two characters, going toe-to-toe, mano y mano, with only the briefest of actual time in the same scene.  Aesthetically, it’s balanced, but it’s not particularly fascinating to say that one can identify with two sides when decent men are at the core.

And the film itself, while entertaining and stylish, how good was it?  Taste is a quality unique to each individual, so take my opinion for what it is.  I thought the film was good, interesting, and slick, but dead somewhere, lacking somewhere, though I couldn’t entirely say where.  Not that that matters either.  It looks good, the gangsters are stylin’, and it is what it is.

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