When it comes to the discussion about style-over-substance, Michael Mann’s is not a name that should be spoken in the same breath as that phrase, which is apt for filmmakers who have a keen eye but a tin ear and an empty soul. For Mann is not only a dazzling stylist, but he began his career as a crack screenwriter with a knack for poetic dialogue, granular detail, and strong characterization. But Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s 2009 retelling of the waning days of the Dillinger gang, steers dangerously close to being style-over-substance by assembling a history lesson into a Michael Mann skin and short-changing the audience on the emotional side of the dividing line.
This is not to begin by saying Public Enemies is a bad movie. It is not. In fact, if it were anyone else’s film, it would likely rank as a high-water mark of their career. It’s a bold feast for the senses and, in the retelling of a legendary chapter in American myth-making, adopts an approach to the story that is romanticized but never one that disallows showing the shocking, wanton violence and utter brutality that career criminals like John Dillinger meted out when it was convenient.
Public Enemies is that type of mob film that exists in that extended period of time between the death of the Old West and the rise of the big time mob syndicates and racketeers. Thematically and chronologically, Public Enemies is not too far removed from a western. In fact, it is set but only 20 years after the events in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. And like that film, Public Enemies is also about a lone hold-out who watches his gang get whittled down one-by-one, swallowed up by times that are changing and do no favors to those who hold fast to yesterday.
For Public Enemies shuffles history around to string out a yarn about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), bank robber and celebrity criminal, whose crew, along with the Karpis-Barker Gang and Bonnie and Clyde, gripped the public’s consciousness during the Great Depression. More than most, Dillinger was seen as a hero to the citizen ravaged by the effects of the stagnant economic times and the film, scripted by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman (adapted from a 2004 non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough), goes to great lengths to ensure the audience understands this. Kid-glove treatment of human shields and a reluctance to take anything but the bank’s money all but ensure that the public and the audience sees Dillinger as a Robin Hood-type figure who, because history is what it is, is tragically doomed.
Everything in the film looks great but what’s missing is a true conveyance of motivation for Dillinger’s actions. Most of Michael Mann’s protagonists are driven but also solitary and lovesick. In Public Enemies, John Dillinger just seems bored and impulsive and his quick attachment to coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) seems more truncated than what usually occurs in a Michael Mann film. His devotion to her and the dream of a life beyond crime doesn’t seem as sadly desperate as it does with the other similar characters in the filmmaker’s universe; it just seems like a way to move the story forward.
Likewise, most of the hunters in Mann’s films are cool, focused, and their obsessions are well-defined as being substitutes for the holes in their personal lives. But Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent assigned to stop Dillinger, is a rootless predator fish in an ocean of sharks and he comes from nowhere to fill a role that feels more bureaucratic than it does enthusiastic. Whatever one wants to say about the flash and the impossible cool of Heat and Miami Vice, at least those characters functioned with a sense that they knew they were in overblown, romantic operas and the actors that inhibited those roles modulated their performances accordingly.
Mann’s cloaking of his usual themes may be a strategy to give Public Enemies a freshness but it also feels a bit like burying the lede. Instead of getting a deeply beautiful sense of a true relationship between Frank and Okla like in Thief, James Russo’s Dietrich, a father figure mentor to Dillinger, is dispatched early without any character context, only mentioned two more times in dialogue that feels rushed, oddly delivered, and is mixed into the soundtrack in such a way where it feels more like a piece of the symphony of sound effects and music. The assemblage of the law enforcement team, which proves to be just as brutal and cutthroat as the criminals robbing banks, also feels like it’s a concern shuffled to the back of the pile in favor of the film’s ornate window dressing. There is a great irony in the film found in Melvin Purvis’s early boasting of the superior technological tactics of the FBI that would make the difference in capturing Dillinger but, instead, it was just good old-fashioned abuse and torture that yielded the best results. Another great irony is that the criminals are more apt to expel wild cards from their ranks than the cops which reflects the extra degree of ruthlessness in what is supposed to be The Good Guys. But both of these things feel submerged in the film’s prioritization of looking good in a mirror.
There is a kernel of an idea in Public Enemies that Melvin Purvis, as good a range tracker and lawman as he may have been, really didn’t have what it took to be the cop he wanted to be. But this, too, feels underdeveloped and is mostly recognized as a mirrored reflection of Dillinger not being able to survive in a brave new world of sophistication and coast-to-coast criminal networks where drawing attention to one’s self and getting your picture in the paper was one of the last things you wanted to do. So the film’s most intriguing moments come when the syndicate washes their hands of Dillinger because, though an outlaw, he becomes a poisonous figure and bad for business and, in the climax of the film and perhaps one of the biggest pieces of mobster lore in American history, Purvis is relegated to middle-management as it is Stephen Lang’s Agent Charles Winstead who executes the plan that will end up benefiting J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) more than it would Purvis. All Purvis gets to do is call Washington to let Hoover know that Dillinger has been killed.
The film’s look at the early methods of law enforcement recall the more sophisticated avenues of detection employed by Hanna and the Robbery Homicide Department or the vice squad in Miami. Here, Mann emulates one of his filmmaking heroes, Fritz Lang, whose 1931 masterpiece M was one of the first films to take a granular look at detective work and procedure while also laying a template for Mann’s notions on the interchangeability between organized crime and law enforcement. And it is in these scenes in Public Enemies, set in dark rooms with criss-crossed wires, blinking lights, and endlessly ringing phones, that the film is really at its most fascinating as we see Wild America getting tamed by a network of surveillance.
But Public Enemies’s attempt to blend the real life Dillinger story into a Mann framework is hit or miss. Depp and Colltiard look great together but don’t convey that heavy chemistry necessary for Mann’s characters to take flight. I should feel that their relationship is miles deeper than that of Scott Glenn and Alberta Watson’s in The Keep but, instead, its increased depth could be measured in feet. Little by little, Dillinger’s gang gets pinched, flipped, blocked-off or killed, and everyone ends up with a wild-card Waingro or two on the squad which is a nifty way to show the immovable patterns of criminal activity and personas, likely as old as history itself.
The one thing to consider in Public Enemies is the characters’ sense of destiny that’s not really in Mann’s other crime films. Here, it straddles the line between the type of portrait of a man who transcends his profession to become a symbol, such as in Ali, and a routine head of a crime crew. This balance is articulated well in a floaty and dreamy scene that seems too written to be true (but, alas, is) where Dillinger moves through a Chicago police department undetected, scanning the bulletin boards and mock ups that unravel the line of dead associates that end with Dillinger the last man standing in his circle.
This is also conveyed in the film’s multi-layered climax where John Dillinger goes to the Biograph Theater to see W.S. Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 gangster picture with Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. We watch the recreation of the event, a self-reflexive double looking glass in which Dillinger, watching a mob film, feels the romanticism seep off the screen as he finds meaning and deliverance in the dialogue of the Hollywood production. Letting go is a theme in Mann’s work and it is most pronounced in Public Enemies and, in the film, it is at its most explicit as Dillinger moves through the last ten minutes of his life as if at a certain peace with himself.
On a technical level, this film is undeniably brilliant. The Bohemia Lodge shootout and subsequent death of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) is one of the film’s most outstanding set-pieces. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti creates some brilliant widescreen frames and his utilization of Mann’s preferred style of digital photography, Public Enemies being the first of Michael Mann’s films to be shot 100% digitallly, gives the film a breakneck immediacy that comes in handy during its myriad action scenes.
Though its pleasures aren’t immediate, Public Enemies is something of a grower even if its lack of the same kind of heart that embodies the best of Michael Mann’s work all but ensures it has a hard ceiling. For the scarceness of sweeping romanticism and character motivation feels like a shortchange in the pursuit of the sort of grandiose myth-making on par with Ali; but, unlike that film, even if it still has the tools, it doesn’t have the heart.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain