Ever since Francis Ford Coppola abdicated the rights in 1974 after The Godfather II, no one has mastered the crime epic better than Michael Mann. Mann's Heat (1995) is, in my opinion, flawless. It's inevitable that his latest film, Public Enemies, will be compared to that masterpiece and it is not an unfair comparison. Indeed, Mann seems to invite the association, making it impossible to ignore. Public Enemies is Heat with fedoras, a gangster epic that is easily the best and most rewarding thing the director has done in more than a decade, an intensely visceral tour-de-force. In a summer season tailor made for teenagers, Mann has come out with something perfect for adults.
Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber who gained folk hero status among the populace in the 1930s for robbing the banks believed responsible for the Great Depression, and Christian Bale as dashing FBI agent Melvin Purvis, the man appointed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to bring him to justice.
A sort of Robin Hood, Dillinger was an almost mythological figure, a charming bandit who treated the public with the utmost respect; they, in turn, sheltered him from a police force always a step or two behind. Dillinger's exploits only fueled his iconic status—he cleared out banks in record time and mounted audacious escapes from jail. Dillinger's mockery of the law—and the lawmen assigned to stop him—was the perfect impetus for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which labeled him the country's first Public Enemy Number One, and charged Purvis with taking him down by any means necessary. Frustrated by the criminal mastermind at every turn, Purvis traded in his Yale-trained special agents for a posse of Texas lawmen, initiating a bloody, urban showdown.
Public Enemies is about the dawning of a new age. Agent Purvis constantly tells his men that the only way they will catch their prey is if they leave the antiquated tools of police work behind and embrace modern technology. Hoover too makes this contention when he tells Purvis that the ends justify the means when it comes to apprehending Dillinger. We live in a new, modern age, he tells Purvis, and we must adapt our methods to fit it and abandon polite civility. One wonders if Mann is intentionally trying to evoke the language of former Vice President Cheney, when he said America must embrace cruelty in order to survive in a cruel world. In the end, Dillinger is not brought down by modern police work so much as by a progressive criminal enterprise that leaves him and his anachronistic methods in the dust.
Depp, so good at being the chameleon, is also great at playing it straight. While Dillinger is charismatic when the news cameras are rolling, he is a very different man in private. Purvis, whom we never really get to know as anything other than a man singularly possessed of an all-consuming mission, is even more elusive. Bale sports an accent that is difficult to accept at first but is a welcome change after growling his way through The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation. Like DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, the two men are embodiments of the two-faced Roman god Janus. Both are cut from the same cloth and temperament, opposite sides of the same coin.
Dillinger's two personas are seen best in his relationship with Billie Frechette (La vie en Rose's Marion Cotillard), a poor coat check girl whom Dillinger sweeps out of her placid, going-nowhere world into a heady existence of excitement and glamour. She is memorable specifically because she is not a vampish torch singer but a poor girl in a cheap dress without two pennies to rub together. Dillinger does not go for her because he finds her a vulnerable target, but because she is singularly authentic. With her he can simply be a man, not a criminal celebrity.
Public Enemies spends much of its running time addressing the cult of celebrity. Its villain hero is more relatable and far more human than its knight in shining armor. Dillinger is a likable rogue, a criminal who eschews violence as often as possible, who goes out of his way to protect the public, and a crafty entrepreneur who understands that the media spotlight that seeks his scalp is also the most effective PR tool at his disposal. Dillinger uses his celebrity to craft a public persona. When he is captured by the police, thousands line the streets giddily to get a glimpse of him, and cops and prosecutors pose arm in arm with him. Mann blurs the line of persona even further in the film's penultimate scene in which one of Dillinger's last acts on earth is taking in a gangster movie staring Clark Gable.
Mann was one of the first directors to embrace digital technology. Working with famed cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann employs HD (as well as quite a bit of shaky cam), a method I feared, from the trailers, would be far more distracting than it really was. I was concerned that the HD cameras would jar me from the immersion of the period, calling attention to the equipment used to produce it rather than be the world it reproduces. Instead, the digital format gave the film an odd sense of hyper-reality. The amount of detail and depth of field is breathtaking. Most noticeably employed in night scenes (not coincidently the occasion of several of the gun battles), the digital medium gave it a greater air of authenticity, one more level of veracity that made the incandescent muzzle flashes, singing bullets and sickening collisions with either wood or human flesh that much more frightening.
Most firefights are shot with an aesthetic nod to what looks most glamorous and evocative. But this is the director of Heat and its seminal cinematic heart—a firefight on a crowded L.A. street—which is still the standard by which all gunfights are judged. Here, Mann trades aesthetics for claustrophobia and pandemonium. There is nothing exhilarating about being in a Mann shootout. They are terrifying, primal, visceral experiences.
Public Enemies is exactly what you'd want and expect from a gangster movie. Mobsters hang off car running boards, bags of loot in one hand, chattering Tommy guns in the other. This movie isn't all that different than the ones James Cagney used to make, though the R-rated world is a lot tougher and more realistic. Like all Mann's films, there are lulls of peace punctuated by fits of extreme and brutal violence. Gangsters don't crumple bloodlessly like in the olden days, they are hewn where they stand, leaking crimson like human sieves.
Mann isn't interested in making a historical film so much as a psychological one. While Public Enemies sticks mostly to history and never plays especially fast and loose with the facts, details are secondary. His leads are not moral archetypes but highly skilled professionals with deeply flawed emotional cores. Mann, a perfectionist and modern auteur in a way that very few directors today are, strives to strike a balance between glamorizing his famous subject and painting him as the sociopath he obviously was. He places his men (for while there are women in his films, his is a deeply phallocentric world dominated by hyper masculine superstars) in crisis situations and then stands back to see how they will react. Public Enemies is his most ambitious project to date, a film in which he shows complete mastery and control over each and every element of the production. Technically and artistically, Public Enemies is a sterling film, a supremely mounted epic of the sort few are willing to undertake anymore.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Do the ends ever justify the means? Why or why not?
- Who are some contemporary examples of cult of celebrity? Are they worthwhile examples? Do you feel that the film glamorized evil?
- Though the villain, Dillinger is also loyal and selfless. How do we reconcile the fact that sometimes the "bad guys" act with greater honor than the "good guys?"
- Do you see a resonance with the villain/hero's attack on the banks during the Great Depression and our nation's current financial crisis? Is Mann trying to suggest something?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Public Enemies is rated R for gangster violence and some language. The language is, for the most part, slight. There is one brief, tame and non-nude love scene and one scene of a woman in the bathtub though her nakedness is obscured by the murky water. Public Enemies earns its R rating almost exclusively because of its pervasive violence—dozens of characters die in a hail of gunfire.
Photos © Universal Films
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