Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet, explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.

When the name Michael Mann appears at the front of a movie—as it does before Public Enemies, opening this week—you know you're in for a heat wave. And probably a crime wave too.

Mann on the 'Public Enemies' set

Mann on the 'Public Enemies' set

Mann loves to turn up the temperature. His films follow fevered individuals pushing back against "the Man"—that is, the oppressor. The establishment. The forces that would make one conform to a program. And in that friction between the corporation and the Individual with a Vision, things turn violent.

Sometimes the individual is a brave and moral hero caught in the crossfire of corrupt forces. Think of Will Graham (William Petersen), the unconventional FBI specialist tracker in Manhunter; Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) in The Last of the Mohicans; or Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) on a crusade for truthful journalism in The Insider.

Sometimes that hero is not quite so admirable. Lieutenant Vincent Hannah (Pacino) in Heat wreaks havoc on the lives of those dear to him in his furious pursuit of bank robbers. And both Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice—the television series that brought Michael Mann to fame, and the movie that paired Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx—make moral compromises all the time in their single-minded quest to bring down drug lords.

And sometimes—as in Mann's new movie Public Enemies—the "hero" is almost 100 percent criminal, pursuing his vision in defiance of the law. Like The Joker, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) pursues an ambitious and violent agenda, laughing as he exposes the flaws in the forces that pursue him.

Thus, Mann is an auteur preoccupied with an obvious theme: Single-minded men, and their struggle to do their particular job—whether ethical or unethical—with their own particular methods and style, without buckling under the pressure to conform. His heroes, whether cop or robber, declare, "I'm gonna do it my way."

No wonder he made a movie about Muhammad Ali.

Each of these characters may as well be speaking for Mann himself, whose movies are distinct, personal, and sometimes, yes, a little too criminal in nature.

Does "Cop vs.  Robber" Equal "Right vs. Wrong"?

Public Enemies is as slick, polished, and loaded as the heavy artillery that Dillinger and his gang assemble before any of their professional bank robberies in this twenty-one-gun salute to films about cops and robbers. It delivers all of the conventions we've come to expect from great movies about bank heists, manhunts, and 1930s crime, but at the same time it turns the genre upside down.

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While we're watching a story about FBI chief Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) on a quest to hunt down Dillinger, Mann pulls the same stunt he did in what is arguably his masterpiece, 1995's Heat. He blurs the lines between "good guys" and "bad guys," finding something admirable in Dillinger's genius, and something appalling in Purvis's steel trap of justice.

Ultimately, we're meant to see that there isn't much separating the robber on the run from the cops on his trail. As you watch Public Enemies, consider the two titans caught up in the clash. Both take terrible risks to achieve what they want. Both leave a bloody wake of "collateral damage." Both are out to prove to the world that they cannot be outdone. Both make choices that seem morally reprehensible.

At the end of Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies, the wages of sin do eventually punish the crooks. But they punish the do-gooders too. In Heat, Lieutenant Hanna has suffered harrowing trials at home due to his neglect of his family. We're left asking: Was it worth it? Was Hanna's furious pursuit of Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) worth the damage done to his loved ones?

The question is timely and relevant. When J. Edgar Hoover [Billy Crudup] announces at the beginning of Public Enemies that he is beginning the United States of America's "first war on crime," the vocabulary reminds us of what has become a household term: "the war on terror."

Americans were enamored with Dillinger

Americans were enamored with Dillinger

Just as Mann questions our admiration of lawmen, he refuses to show contempt for criminals. He's interested in Dillinger's extraordinary popularity across the U.S. during the Great Depression. Why did we love a crook so much? Perhaps it has something to do with our own resistance to conformity and control. Dillinger single-handedly humiliated the nation's authority figures and made a mockery of the U.S. justice system. Mann suggests that the nation, fed up with their leaders' insufficiencies, found Dillinger's one-man show rather exhilarating. Through ongoing jailbreaks and bank busts, he exposed the incompetence of our technology, our scientific methods, and our assertions of God-like power.

At the end of Heat, there is an unsettling camaraderie between the cop and the bank robber. Even as they are locked in competition, they develop enormous respect for each other's strength of will. No joke: We see the "hero" and the "villain" hand-in-hand at the end of the film.

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Similarly, we see a lawman bond with Dillinger in the closing minutes of Public Enemies. (Surprise: It isn't Purvis. It's another manhunter, one more familiar with what it takes to survive a dozen shootouts.)

Crime and the law are almost mirror images in Mann's world. In Public Enemies, both the criminals and law enforcement are increasingly corporate ventures. The man of vision suffers under a heightening pressure to conform. The real crime on Mann's mind isn't bank-robbery, but the dehumanizing consequences of greed and ambition. Mann doesn't deny that Dillinger is a criminal; he's just more interested in the aspects that motivate him and make him such a success. He's interested in the trails criminals blaze, and how they blaze them.

An Elusive Moral Center

The moral center to Mann's universe is an elusive thing.

We watch Dillinger admiring the glamorous crooks of the 1930s movies he attends—like the one played by Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. Likewise, Mann is sometimes a little too taken with his tricksters. The "bad guys" lose in the end, but we can't shake the impression that Mann's enamored of the professionalism and zeal of these crooks.

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in 'Collateral'

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in 'Collateral'

In Heat, the crooks get what they have coming, even though the lawmen lose a great deal along the way. And in Collateral, the bewildered innocent (Jamie Foxx) watches the glamorous villain (Tom Cruise) come to a moment of realization, an apprehension of emptiness that echoes the despair of General Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now: "The horror, the horror."

But in Public Enemies, the crimes of Dillinger's gang are not portrayed with the same seriousness as the brutality of the lawmen. Mann seems almost giddy in the presence of these bank robbers, dazzled by their style. His camera avoids the carnage of their cruelty. But he does not hesitate to show us lawmen abusing their power, shooting innocents and even beating a woman. This too easily brings the audience into rooting for killers.

To some extent, I can understand Mann's sympathy for his villains. There is honesty in his portrayal of Dillinger's appeal. In the real world, evil flourishes precisely because it is seductive, appealing, and almost reasonable. Dillinger's way is a path of visceral excitement, sensual pleasure, amplified ego, and high adventure, and he is reacting against some real societal wrongs like greed and arrogance.

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"And what do you want?" Billie Freschette (Marion Cotillard) asks Dillinger. "Everything," he says. "Right now." And that is precisely what he gets. His glory lasts only a few fleeting moments. He has his reward.

Sure, it is all taken from him. The wages of sin close in. But it's a bittersweet justice. As it should be. These were not merely cold-hearted crooks. They were people with dreams—however misguided—pursuing what was denied them in their early years. (Dillinger's father beat him, disillusioning him to authority. Billie never knew the love of a father, and was seduced by Dillinger's authoritative love for her.) We know that Dillinger got what he "deserved," but we also have seen that he was a tragic human being who never quite found the right way to chase a dream.

This may leave a bad taste in the mouths of conscientious viewers. We would hope that wicked men would come off looking foolish and repulsive. Dillinger's motto, included in the film's trailer, rings out: "We've havin' too good a time today. We ain't thinkin' about tomorrow." Isn't that the philosophy of the wealthy, irresponsible people who sank our nation into this present economic crisis? It doesn't sound so much like a hero's philosophy when you're one of the victims of such greed.

The deeper implications

Still, Mann cannot shake the deeper implications of such a philosophy. He seems genuinely troubled by betrayals and moral compromises. Corrupt heroes get caught between corrupt lawmen and corrupt drug dealers in Miami Vice. A troubled hero struggles in the crossfire of corrupt Redcoats, corrupt Native Americans, and other misguided forces in The Last of the Mohicans. And justice seems impossible as the media, the law, and corporate liars contend with each other in The Insider.

It's healthy for us to join Mann in reflecting on the corrupting nature of power. Just as a farm boy like Dillinger can turn wicked, so men in a uniform can make terrible decisions, betray the public, and disgrace their station.

But let's also note that Mann's glamorous villains come to ruin in the end. By contrast, his heroes come to ruin as well—but the rightness of their cause is hard to deny.

To be truly heroic, we must count everything we have as loss. True courage requires a living sacrifice.

In retrospect, the characters that shine most brightly in Mann's films—for me, anyway—are those who encounter the seduction of individual glory and reject it for the greater good.

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In The Insider, Lowell Bergman wants to take down Big Tobacco, and he won't let offers of money or fame cloud his vision. He will put the truth on the air for all of America to see, even if it wrecks his career. He'll risk it all to bring down those heartless corporate executives.

Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in 'The Insider'

Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in 'The Insider'

Even more heroic, Jeffrey Wigand—a flawed and fearful man—finds the courage to stand up and tell the truth, knowing that he may lose his career, his family, and his life in the process. And he suffers devastation. For this moviegoer, Wigand is the most affecting and admirable of Mann's myth-sized men. His choice reveals the truth, which is more powerful than any machine gun.

Mann is right to see that the world is not about good guys and bad guys. We don't live in a world of "white hats" and "black hats," and when we decide that we do, we open ourselves to horrible presumption and error. Whatever team you're on, not one of us is truly righteous. So says the Good Book.

He's right to blur the lines, kindle questions, and confuse the issue. On the front lines of good versus evil, things can get very confusing. Sometimes, men can blaze their way to hell with the most lawful methods. Others, crime on their minds, may be reacting against even greater crimes, and groping for the freedom and love that they need.

But Mann's conclusions leave some things clear. Truth is good. Justice is possible. And love is costly.

That is the messy area Michael Mann explores. And I'm grateful for his films, for the ways he challenges me to wrestle with these questions.