‘Public Enemies’ *** Movie Review 091909

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The Work = ****
Full disclosure: I have an obsession with filmmaker Michael Mann as well as fascination with the wave of crime that swept the USA in the era of the outlaw John Dillinger. I start with the disclosure because I want to make it clear: it would be pretty difficult for me to not find something to enjoy in Mann's latest film 'Public Enemies'. Even with my bias I can say, with a certain amount of confidence, that 'Public Enemies' is an enjoyable crime drama and well worth your time. There is some grisly violence but the film is about violent men and 'Public Enemies' never overplays the onscreen mayhem. So long as you are up for the violent moments, you should check out the film.

John Dillinger was somewhat unique in his day. He was a robber that, by most accounts, was extremely likeable. I have heard it said that when people were kidnapped by Dillinger and his gang they wouldn't want to leave. While making amazing getaways from the law, he became something of a celebrity and a force to be reckoned with. Dillinger’s eccentricities and success made him a great subject for films. I reviewed two such movies already, 'Dillinger' (1945, reviewed HERE) and a 1973 film with the same title (reviewed HERE.) Warren Oates played Dillinger in the 1973 ‘Dillinger’ and I think he may have been the closest in appearance to the famous robber (Actually maybe not, I can’t really make up my mind.) Anyway, that film is a favorite of mine and now so too is Mann’s 'Public Enemies'.

Johnny Depp has stepped into the role and while he may not look that much like Dillinger, Depp has a certain raw charisma and magnetism that makes his Dillinger perhaps the most likeable. With Depp’s interpretation it is easy to see why people would follow the man (hell, in some of the newsreel footage of the real John Dillinger, he practically looks like a movie star.) Opposite Depp is Christian Bale as FBI man Melvin Purvis who heads up a task force that has the sole focus of apprehending or stopping Dillinger and his crew. Over the course of the movie Purvis builds his own crew of men able to go toe to toe with the Dillinger gang and take them down.

My favorite Michael Mann films often deal with skilled professionals, on one side: the law enforcement, on the other: the criminals. Both groups are good at what they do and they have honed their craft, (often at the expense of their personal lives.) Here with ‘Public Enemies’ Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman work from a book by Bryan Burrough to paint a portrait of characters that are simialr to some of the people from Mann's previous works. They take their work seriously and try to be the best what they do. Dillinger may have an easygoing, unflinching demeanor but it is all part of what he does. No matter what odds he faces, no matter what situation he is in, Dillinger is always confident. Except for a few moments that hint at what is boiling inside of the unstoppable bank robber, Dillinger always seems in control. It is interesting that all of the scenes where Dillinger shows any weakness, any indication of waning endurance, come only when he is either alone, or in the presence of his most trusted comrades.

In the film, both Dillinger’s crew and lawman Purvis’s crew scramble to take advantage of the latest technologies in the early 1930s. Dillinger’s crew has military grade weapons and the fastest cars money can buy. Local law enforcement simply cannot compete. Purvis’s men start out behind the eight ball but as they collect professionals and adapt new technology (like phone tapping) they begin to gain on the criminals. The better they get, the harder it is for Dillinger to stay ahead of them and as he loses men, he is forced to take on new associates that are sometimes as much of a danger to him as they are to the law.

The country is changing in ‘Public Enemies’ and a government employee named J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is making his own play for power by securing Federal funding to start a nation-wide police force: the FBI. With his funding and his nation-wide jurisdiction, Hoover has the ability to have his men cross state lines with weapons and the power to make arrests. If there was a hidden legacy left in the wake of Dillinger and the crime wave that swept the country it was Hoover’s FBI. The organization became a force to be reckoned with and Hoover himself would outlast powerful criminals, dictators, and presidents alike.

Mann shoots his movie, as he did with his last film ‘Miami Vice’ on a digital format instead of film. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti he makes sequences, such as one where Dillinger arrives by plane, that are downright beautiful. However, the format often has a certain “look” to it that I find difficult to describe and some shots looked like detail levels were dropping. The trade off is that there many sequences with very low light levels. After Dillinger is transported by plane at night, he is taken by car to a jail. Mann and Spinotti put the camera inside the car with Dillinger and the camera picks up everything in the car without any lights inside the vehicle. Eventually as the technology advances, digital cameras will in all likelihoods be able to match or exceed film cameras. Until they do there is something of a trade off, sacrificing some detail for the versatility that the digital cameras offer.

Normally when I write these reviews I don’t have the opportunity to see the film I am reviewing more than once. However, I did manage to see ‘Public Enemies’ twice at a movie theater before I started working on this review. I have to say that while I enjoyed the film the first time around, I definitely enjoyed it more during the second viewing. There were details that I missed the first time around and with the second viewing the characters seemed more developed somehow. I suspect part of the reason I didn’t catch as much the first time is Mann starts his story off rather quickly and at the outset there is very little information given about the onscreen figures.

There are interesting character flourishes in the film. Purvis is dedicated and perhaps ruthless but there is some hinting that he does not understand or respect Dillinger. Mann paints a picture of two men on opposite sides of the law that seem to resent one another. Perhaps Purvis resents Dillinger’s popularity and success. There is no love lost when the two men come face to face. Dillinger seems to resent Purvis’s righteous indignation despite killing in cold blood. He taunts Purvis telling him that killing up closes is different than shooting a man in the back at long range. One of the implications is that both men are changed by what they do and Purvis is just as vicious (if not more so) as Dillinger.

After struggling to match the Dillinger gang, Purvis brings in more experience law enforcement (only after threatening to quit.) Watching ‘Public Enemies’ the second time around I picked up more details on one of the men he enlists: Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang.) There is something very interesting about Winstead in the film; he seems to understand and respect Dillinger a lot better than Purvis does. At least a few times he knows what Dillinger will do next and Purvis overrides him. Near the very end of the film Winstead outright contradicts Purvis, ignoring his instructions and telling Purvis where he will go. Perhaps it is that Winstead and Dillinger are both Southerners or maybe Winstead appreciates that Dillinger only uses violence as a last resort. Of course that does not keep him from coming after the robber with everything he has and there is at least a suggestion that if Winstead had his way, Dillinger may have been stopped sooner. Winstead’s final scene in ‘Public Enemies’ cements that he has a certain respect for Dillinger and possibly some disdain for Purvis. Maybe in another life he could have been on the opposite side of the law and if he was, he would have been someone like Dillinger.

Winstead is a great character that is memorable thanks to Mann’s filmmaking and a wonderful performance by actor Stephen Lang. There’s a pretty good chance you have seen Lang in something and may not realize it. The guy is phenomenal and has been giving memorable performances for quite some time. He has been everything from an over the top villain in 1991’s ‘The Hard Way’ to a down on his luck man, Harry Black, who has hidden desires in ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’. He has been in Mann’s projects ‘Crime Story’ and ‘Manhunter’. He played a general in ‘Gettysburg’ and then a different one in ‘Gods and Generals’. He was memorable as Ike Clanton in ‘Tombstone’ and is going to be seen in James Cameron’s upcoming ‘Avatar’. I always enjoy his performances and if you check out his filmography, you will find that the man has been in about a billion projects. As I have said he was great here as he is in many other projects and hopefully with two prominent films like ‘Public Enemies’ and ‘Avatar’ (amongst other things) he will start to get more notice than he has in the past.

Watching the ‘Public Enemies’ I was impressed with the dynamic characters that Mann created. Winstead doesn’t have ton of screen time but I felt I knew him and understood why he would do what he did. The same can be said of most of the players in the film. Whether it was Winstead, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard,) Red (Jason Clarke,) Carter Baum (Rory Cochrane,) they were fleshed out and often developed in the background of the film. Seeing the film a second time only made me enjoy the film more. One reason is Mann starts ‘Public Enemies’ rather suddenly. There are no flashbacks to childhood and sequences of home life for just about anyone except Dillinger. Because Mann starts the film with Dillinger operating at his peak. It took me a little while to get settled in. The second time around I understood what was going on better and consequently the opening was not as disorienting.

Mann takes some liberty with Dillinger’s history. He does the same with many of the characters and events surrounding Dillinger. He shuffles around timelines and characters for the sake of telling a dramatic tale. As I said at the beginning of this review, I have a fascination with Dillinger and the wave of crime that swept the US in his day. That being said, I still did not mind any of the changes that he made. Sticklers for history may be bothered the changes Mann makes and I have to wonder if some may think that Purvis’s portrayal in ‘Public Enemies’ was unfair. Bale makes the man a driven, dangerous lawman, who, not unlike Dillinger, rarely lets on exactly how much of a tole his work is taking. For myself, I had no problems with the changes as it served the wonderful interplay between characters in the film.

As I said at the outset of this review, ‘Public Enemies’ would have to have been really bad for me not to like it. Having seen the film twice I can say it only gets better with repeat viewings. Mann crafts the story of Dillinger into a romantic crime drama with strong characters and many great performances. I could write on and on forever about Mann’s films but you get the idea. The movie is a violent, entertaining portrait of an outlaw from a bygone era. Highly recommended.


‘Public Enemies’ Links:


My review of Michael Mann's 'Miami Vice'

My review of Michael Mann's TV movie 'L.A. Takedown'



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