Public Enemies (United States, 2009)

June 30, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Public Enemies Poster

There's something almost old-fashioned about Michael Mann's Public Enemies, a mostly factual re-telling of the descent and death of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), one of the 1930s most infamous bank robbers. More drama than thriller, the movie does a slightly better job with period detail than with character building. While Dillinger is sympathetically portrayed, he falls just short of full three-dimensionality, with the character never quite emerging from the shadow of the real-world legend. Dillinger's pursuer, Federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), fares worse: he's a perfect stereotype of the grim, humorless lawman, bent on delivering justice to criminals by using the business end of a firearm. That's not to say Public Enemies is by any means a bad film; on the contrary, it's quite engaging. It is competently constructed and often compelling, but it will not be mentioned in the same breath as some of its classic predecessors.

Obvious candidates for comparison are Arthur Penn's 1967 touchstone, Bonnie and Clyde, and Brian De Palma's 1987 The Untouchables. Public Enemies lacks the fire and energy of the former and the operatic grandeur of the latter. Mann's approach to this story is businesslike and low-key; he's not trying for something epic. His goal is to demythologize Dillinger - something at which he is only partially successful. Public Enemies' Dillinger is not about crime and money. Instead, he is driven by love and compulsion. The only thing more important to him than robbing banks is coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Public Enemies, which derives much of its factual information from Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book of the same name, begins with Dillinger's audacious jailbreak from a prison in Lima. At the time, some of Dillinger's best-known robberies are behind him, and he is already one of America's most celebrated gangsters. After his escape, he and his gang head to ground in Chicago, where the post-Capone mob offers him sanctuary and protection. During this period, he becomes involved with Frechette, who he views as the love of his life. Meanwhile, Dillinger has become an obsession for FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who appoints Purvis as the head of the Chicago office with the primary directive of tracking down Dillinger. Purvis' initial efforts are bloody and ineffective, but he learns from his mistakes and soon brings on board a group of hardened Texas Rangers like Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang) to turn the tide.

Dillinger is again caught and imprisoned, this time in Crown Pointe at a jail so tightly guarded it is deemed to be escape-proof. Dillinger has little trouble freeing himself, departing the grounds in the stolen car of the town's sheriff. Upon his return to Chicago, however, he discovers that the climate had changed. The syndicate, now run under the auspices of boss Frank Nitti, perceives bank robbers like Dillinger as loose cannons who are bad for business. The gangsters no longer offer aid or shelter to Dillinger; in fact, they conspire against him. He again hooks up with Frechette, but their reunion has an unhappy conclusion. Circumstances force him to join forces with the likes of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), but a gradual narrowing of his options leads to his eventual demise after being betrayed by "The Lady in Red" at the Biograph Theater on July 21, 1934.

Mann injects a little too much of himself into the film's style. In particular, most of the movie is shot using hand-held cameras and, while this works well to enhance the sense of chaos and confusion during certain scenes, its overuse becomes distracting and at times off-putting. Directors often forget that frequent swish-pans and the lack of a stable plane can result in nausea for a certain portion of the movie-going public, and there are likely to be some queasy stomachs during the course of Public Enemies. Camera movement issues aside, the film is beautifully mounted, with many scenes being shot in the actual locations where events occurred some 75 years ago.

The director's objective is to emphasize drama over suspense and, as a result, the kind of fast pace and narrative momentum often associated with a thriller is absent here. However, there are individual scenes in which Mann ratchets up the level of tension. The most apparent of these is a seemingly throw-away sequence: after escaping from the Crown Pointe jail, Dillinger and his pals sit at a red traffic light in the stolen car in plain view of everyone in town, including law enforcement officials. It seems that the light will never turn green; endless seconds tick by. Passersby turn to look at the car. The scene, intentionally drawn-out for maximum effect, is as agonizing as De Palma's famous homage to The Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Steps in The Untouchables. Another standout sequence in Public Enemies is more effective for comedy than suspense, and involves Dillinger's reaction in a movie theater to an on-screen announcement warning the audience to be on the lookout for him, America's "Public Enemy #1."

Perhaps with the idea of replicating the kind of classic confrontation between Law and Criminality depicted in Heat, Mann cast strong actors as Dillinger and Purvis. Although both Depp and Bale bring forceful personalities to their role, only the former is given the opportunity to sear the screen. Bale's character is too thinly-drawn for him to be able to do much beyond glowering and looking serious. Depp's ferocious intensity reminds us that he is capable of riveting the attention even when not playing the kind of odd, off-kilter roles that have become his specialty over the years. The spotlight is often stolen (even from Depp) by Marion Cotillard, whose interpretation of Frechette is so beguiling that it's easy to understand why someone as hard-bitten as Dillinger might be attracted to her. And Billy Crudup's supporting performance as J. Edgar Hoover is brilliant.

Burrough, the author of the source material, has admitted that, although the movie takes a certain amount of artistic license with history, it is the most factual telling of Dillinger's story thus far to appear on screen. Mann does not overglamorize the bank robbing lifestyle, although he shows the gap between how Dillinger is viewed by law enforcement officials (as a dangerous man who needs to be stopped at all costs) and by the general public (as a Robin Hood-like figure). Public Enemies also touches none-too-subtly on a topic of some contemporary concern: what constitutes an "unacceptable practice" in extreme interrogations. This is raised twice during the course of the film, most notably when Frechette is battered and beaten in an attempt to force Dillinger's location from her. Finally, there is a nod to America's fascination with the lurid. After Dillinger is shot dead, a massive crowd gathers to view the spectacle.

Although Public Enemies does not ascend to the heights of Bonnie and Clyde or The Untouchables, it is nevertheless an effective depiction of the final months of the life of one of the United States' most infamous criminals. Of all the cinematic versions of Dillinger's life and/or death, this is the most dramatically compelling. It's an imperfect motion picture but Depp and Cotillard are compulsively watchable and there's enough intrigue and historical veracity to make the 140 minutes pass quickly. If you can overcome issues associated with the hand-held camerawork, Public Enemies is solid in both its storytelling and the way in which the narrative is represented on screen.

Public Enemies (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2009-07-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1