Movies We Like
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.
The film is an adaptation of the non-fiction book Public Enemies: The Birth of America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 by Bryan Borroughs. Public Enemies specifically focuses on the story of John Dillinger, one of the most romanticized Depression Era bank robbers. With his good looks and flair for self-publicity he became a populist hero to many suffering through the Depression. Johnny Depp can make pretty much any character seem alluring and mysterious and I’ve never seen him be better than in this role. He avoids his tendency to rely on actorly crutches and gives his Dillinger a seductive but quietly menacing quality. He’s confident without being cocky and he’s easy to root for. We never really get to know him, though, because Mann isn’t interested in digging that deeply. As Depp says to Billie Frechette, the young woman he’s intent on making his girlfriend, "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?" He wants Billie (played by the supremely delightful Marion Cotillard) along for the ride and this is a film about the ride—the euphoria of robbing banks and taking what you want, glamorous nights out in 1930s Chicago, the FBI closing in, and then Dillinger’s eventual killing in front of the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue. Any details about the characters that don’t directly involve these events are expendable as far as Mann is concerned.
In addition to Dillinger’s brief reign, the film traces the origins of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the first "War on Crime" ever waged in the United States. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the man Hoover appoints as head of the squad of detectives responsible for taking down Dillinger and other Depression Era bank robbers such as Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Casting Bale as the disturbingly hollow-eyed Purvis was an interesting choice because there are many similarities between Public Enemies and last summer’s The Dark Knight. The richly detailed use of Chicago locales, the mano e mano aspect of Dillinger’s relationship to Purvis, and the tour de force spectacle of Mann’s staging of bank robberies, not to mention a decidedly similar bit of orchestral scoring to the one Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, all point to the possibility of a kind of mutual appreciation and spirit of competition between Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann. But Public Enemies is a far cry from The Dark Knight all the same. Dillinger isn’t a superhero (or super villain for that matter) and Mann isn’t interested in treating him like one. He keeps the story small-scaled with an emphasis on the kinds of details that make the story seem true to life.
All this aside, though, it’s clear that critics by and large didn’t really go for Public Enemies. A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals its "tomomator" rating clocking in at a hit or miss 67%. But my guess is that the film’s reputation will grow over time when the memory of the off-base publicity campaign for the film eventually fades and people can maybe appreciate the film for how innovative and exciting it is.