Movie Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum
Rated R
Release date: July 1, 2009

Michael Mann is one of our best modern masters when it comes to weaving elaborate and starkly realistic cinematic tales of cops and criminals. There is very little black and white in his world. The characters in Mann’s crime dramas who work on opposite sides of the law are always portrayed as equals, and often as shadows of one another. Instead of the musty pulp novels, mildewed comic books, and scratchy 16mm film prints that fuel the imagination of Quentin Tarantino, another filmmaker well versed in making virtuoso action films, Mann, like fellow filmmaking contemporary Martin Scorsese, finds his inspiration in the real-life exploits of the modern day outlaws and the law enforcement officials sworn to bring them in.

His big-screen crime stories (and the various classic television series he has been partly or fully responsible for, such as Miami Vice and Crime Story) are powered by an engine of ruthless intelligence and feelings of isolation and loneliness. In his films you could tell Mann’s sympathies often resided with the criminals instead of the police, who were usually portrayed as being ready and able to go beyond the limits of the law to nab their quarry, but Mann could not be accused of glorifying the criminal lifestyle. His thieves and assassins were coolly professional in their work but emotionally distant from the rest of the world. They had the world at their feet but never chanced enjoying the ill-gotten fruits of their labor for fear of breaking the carefully constructed code that reduced their risk of being arrested by the authorities or even cut down in a hail of gunfire. We liked them for who they were even if we could not condone what they did. Mann did not judge either. He just showed things for how they could be. At the end of his crime stories his criminal anti-heroes usually ended up dead or alone as a result of venturing outside their own limits to have a taste of life, and most importantly love.

As he has also proved with the films The Insider and Ali, Mann has a natural flair for energizing real-life subjects with his own special dynamic brand of storytelling. Given the right cast and technical crew the director can generate cinematic marvels out of anything. I even think his film version of Miami Vice is a sorely underrated gem that should be appreciated because even though Mann could have caved and made it the kind of flashy action vehicle that made for popular television back in the 1980’s he resisted the urge to go generically Hollywood. The result was an uncompromising action drama with a healthy supply of brains and balls as could only be made by the Mann himself. However Mann had yet to tackle the story of one of the historical crime sagas that provided so much inspiration for his classic films. His 1995 action epic Heat was partially based on the story of Chicago police detective Chuck Adamson (renamed Vincent Hanna for the film) and his pursuit of career criminal Neil McCauley, but Mann set the story in modern times and took a ton of dramatic license with the story. Still he came out with a bruising classic of cinema. For his latest film Public Enemies, Mann turns his attention to the time-honored true story of John Dillinger, one of America’s most famous bandits, and the intrepid lawman who finally brought him down, FBI agent Melvin Purvis.

The year is 1933. Four years into the Great Depression and the nation is captivated by the daring exploits of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the charismatic bank robbery from Indiana who spent a good part of his life in prison for stealing $50 before emerging after ten years with the knowledge and skills to become the most notorious criminal in the country. His crimes earn him the title of “Public Enemy #1″ from the government’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation under the self-righteous command of director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). The movie opens with Dillinger staging the prison break of several of his associates, including Pete Pierpont (David Wenham) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff). Their quiet getaway is ruined when a trigger happy comrade starts a shooting match with the guards. Dillinger and his gang manage to escape without any casualties save for one: John’s mentor Walter Dietrich (James Russo). With his gang back in play it’s back to business as usual for Dillinger. Meanwhile Hoover is trying to gain more appropriations funds for the Bureau but a government panel rejects his request. More of a publicity hound than a law enforcement professional (as one senator on the committee points out to Hoover’s embarrassment) Hoover recruits Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a veteran field agent who has gained some notoriety for successfully taking down another public enemy named Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), to head up the nationwide manhunt for John Dillinger.

Purvis accepts the assignment but after a botched raid on an apartment believed to belong to a Dillinger associate but turns out to be the residence of infamous bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) he requests that the Bureau call in agents more experienced in catching dangerous criminals instead of continuing to assign him the clean cut “mama’s boy types” Hoover favors. As the Bureau’s pursuit ramps up Dillinger finds himself falling for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a lonely Chicago coat check girl. In no time at all Dillinger whisks Billie away from her boring, work-a-day life and brings her into his world of crime, must to the disapproval of his longtime partners in crime (and sometimes to even Billie herself). John and Billie love each other but in his line of work there is no guarantee he will live to see the next day. With Purvis undaunted in his mission to bring Dillinger to justice, John struggles to stay out of the grasp of the law as more of his old associates end up betraying him, are sent to prison, or end up dead. Desperate times call for Dillinger to ally with his unstable fellow outlaw Baby Face Nelson leading to a heist that does not pay off as expected and brings down more heat from the Bureau. The odds are against John and if he wants to fulfill his dream of growing old with Billie then he will have to get out of his criminal life while he still can. The promise of one last job, a train heist orchestrated by old friend Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), proves too potentially profitable for Dillinger to pass up, while Purvis and his team close in.

Cut from the same ideal of the criminal as a rebel and a romantic figure that gave rise to Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger was the last true American outlaw. He was also the first celebrity criminal to emerge since motion pictures went to sound, and since gangster pictures were about as popular as true crime stories back in those early days (these days not so much) real criminals not only benefited from all the free publicity but they began to form a symbiotic relationship with the matinee idols portraying their celluloid contemporaries. Dillinger was extremely charming, chivalrous, and best of all, knew the value of maintaining a positive media image in a time where the nation had just suffered a major financial meltdown and millions of Americans were singling out the U.S. government as the source of their woes and in need of a new folk hero. Some things never change. As I mentioned earlier Michael Mann has a distinctive gift for taking a larger-than-life real life subject and infusing them with his own brand of restless dynamism. Like all the greatest artists on whatever canvas they choose, Mann can find new dimensions to his subject to show them in ways we have never seen before. Given his fascination with exploring the intriguing dynamic between cops and criminals and the subtle bonds and similarities they share, the subject of John Dillinger and how the government’s desire to shut him and other criminals like him down resulted in the rise to power of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation seems a natural fit for Mann’s storytelling style.

As documented in the film, which Mann co-wrote with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biederman and is based in part on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Dillinger’s ultimate demise at the hands of Agent Purvis and his team would mark the end of an era. No longer would criminals be hailed as folk heroes. J. Edgar Hoover, played here by Billy Crudup as a slick-haired martinet oozing with contempt for anybody who contradicts him, may have known nothing about solid law enforcement work but like John Dillinger he knew to effectively utilize the media in order to manipulate public opinion in his favor. Several times during Public Enemies we see how Hoover goes about this, passing fraudulent information about his political rivals along to infamous radio host and gossip columnist Walter Winchell (sort of a Bill O’Reilly/Glenn Beck of his day, but much worse) and staging press conferences and photo opportunities to promote his newly instated “War on Crime” with the brazen panache of a Hollywood movie producer. He dreams of reinventing the Bureau of Investigation in his buttoned-down image with clean-cut all-American boys in impeccable suits doing his bidding (which seems ironic given the rumors about Hoover that circulated after his death). With the outlaw life a thing of the past the hearts and minds of an impoverished populace were free for the federal government to influence without conflict.

The parallels between Public Enemies and the stories from many of Michael Mann’s past films are endless. Dillinger could be a spiritual brother to the thieves played by James Caan and Robert DeNiro in Thief and Heat respectively, professional men sharply defined by their expertise quietly longing for a normal life. In both Thief and Heat the characters played by Caan and DeNiro both let their guard down when they fall in love with women far removed from their criminal lives, mirroring the relationship between Dillinger and Billie. The Caan character from Thief, Frank, also enjoys living the high life much like Dillinger. On the side of law and order Melvin Purvis is a cop cut from the Mann mold that gave rise to the characters of Will Graham in Manhunter and Vincent Hanna in Heat, a man clearly defined by what he does but not by who he is. Although Public Enemies is sure to invite comparisons to Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables the movie that came to my mind the most as I watched was Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, a 1980 western about the Jesse James gang that was probably best known for casting four sets of acting brothers (Keach, Carradine, Quaid, and Guest) as the real life brothers in the story. Like Riders Public Enemies does not try to document an entire life on screen but rather the last few months of an outlaw’s life. Both movies, along with The Untouchables, follow the tried and true Hollywood maxim “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” that was ironically adapted by filmmakers after the line first surfaced in John Ford’s brilliant 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Other westerns I could not help but think of as I watched Public Enemies were Sam Peckinpah’s masterful The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which like Michael Mann’s film portrayed the passing of legends and the birth pangs of more advanced but less fascinating eras.

Mann’s last two films, Collateral and Miami Vice, were both shot on high-definition digital film but his decision to shoot a film like Public Enemies using the format is an audacious move on the director’s part. Period pieces like this film are often shot through filters and doctored in post-production to make them resemble snapshots of the past. The decision to shoot Public Enemies digitally and with a great dependence on handheld camerawork gives the film an exciting “you are there” feel that works out very well to its advantage. You can feel the texture of the clothing, feel the cold night air, smell the gunpowder and the money, taste the high-end liquor, and personally experience the tension as robberies and raids are conducted. Veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti works visual miracles with the cutting edge technology. In fact every technical aspect of the film excels from the production design by Nathan Crowley, whose past work with Christopher Nolan (another filmmaker who works on a filmic template of stark realism) meshes perfectly with Mann’s aesthetic, to the stylish costumes from Colleen Atwood to the masterful editing from Jeffery Ford and Paul Rubell that blasts ahead like a wild volley from a Thompson sub-machine gun or moves as gracefully as a dove during the romantic interludes between Dillinger and Billie or during the brief moments of peace that punctuate the furious action beats. Speaking of those action scenes, the intense gun battles that have become a hallmark of Mann’s films are front and center in Public Enemies without question. The sound and the fury of the shootouts between Dillinger and his gang and Purvis and his team can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best action moments of recent years and represent Michael Mann at his most hard hitting. The director can find a strange poetry in the chaotic violence, my favorite being when one of Dillinger’s associates is gunned down by the Feds and his Tommy gun continues to fire at the ground. The cold night air betrays his last breath. The centerpiece gun battle takes place at the Little Bohemia Hunting Lodge where Dillinger, Nelson, and co. were holed up in following a heist that went south. Bullets fly, blood is shed, the scene is simply an action highlight of this somewhat dismal summer. For added authenticity Mann filmed Public Enemies at many of the real historical locations in Dillinger’s story including the aforementioned Little Bohemia and the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana.

Stripped clean of the props and make-up he blanketed himself in to create his Jack Sparrow persona (not to mention the various freaks and geeks he played for director Tim Burton) Johnny Depp reminds us all why he is regarded as one of the best actors of his generation in his performance as John Dillinger. Compared to the iconic characters he has played in the past Depp’s Dillinger is a more external character, a man who is not as flamboyant as the other infamous criminals he was lumped in with but does not forbid himself from enjoying the benefits that come with his line of work. This is not a showy, award-whoring performance as a large-scale prestige picture like this often demands. Mann’s films are on a completely different level. Depp speaks and moves with intelligence and grace like his every move and thought is planned out in advance from several years to a few seconds. His simple body language conveys in a few elegant moves what a stagy monologue could not and he shares a warm chemistry with Cotillard, giving a fine performance in what could have been a thankless role. Billie Frechette was more than a woman to John Dillinger; the love and compassion she brought to their relationship was the final piece of the puzzle that completed his life. Cotillard’s shining moment comes towards the end of the film when after her character has endured a brutal beating at the hands of thuggish federal agents trying to extract information from her as to Dillinger’s whereabouts she tells the bastards how close they were to catching John but failed because they are so damn ignorant. It is a powerful scene. In his second major film performance of the summer Christian Bale, another great actor who lately has been mired in Hollywood blockbuster muck (by choice of course) definitely gives a better show here than he did in Terminator Salvation. He is certainly a standout as the straight arrow lawman tasked to bring John Dillinger to justice and his best moment has to be when after Purvis discovers his subordinates tortured Billie he carries the poor woman to the restroom because she can barely walk. It is small grace notes such as those that can have the greatest emotional impact in film. Unfortunately Bale’s performance suffers from the film’s focus primarily being on Dillinger because there is no room to show any insight into his character’s personal growth. Plus Purvis and Dillinger’s only interaction in the film comes in the form of a brief jailhouse scene, which Depp owns naturally. The lack of character depth can not prevent Bale from showing Purvis’ innate humanity and simmering disgust at the Bureau’s increasingly brutal methods.

Mann has always known to how to surround his stars a with top notch supporting cast and he has assembled a real winner here even though most of the other characters are hardly given any serious focus, something Mann avoided when he made Heat. At least there are two standouts, one on each side of the law acting as a voice of reason. Jason Clarke of the Showtime series Brotherhood takes his role as Dillinger’s friend and right hand man Red Hamilton far beyond what the script allows, imbuing his character with a brain and a soul. The same can be said for veteran actor Stephen Lang, who has worked with Mann in the past on the television series Crime Story and in the film Manhunter, as Charles Winstead, the hardened Texas Ranger brought in to assist Purvis in the Dillinger manhunt. Not one to kowtow to the coldly political and over analytical methods of Hoover’s bureau Winstead is an old world cowboy who will not be corrupted and over the course of the film becomes Purvis’ conscience. At the end of the film Lang has a poignant scene with Cotillard that is one of the best moments in the whole of Public Enemies and serves as a reminder that the best actors are often the ones we tend to take for granted. Among the other supporting cast members who manage to make a minor impression are Stephen Dorff and David Wenham as two Dillinger associates; Giovanni Ribisi as Dillinger confederate Alvin Karpis; Lili Taylor as the sheriff of Lake County Jail; Rory Cochrane and Shawn Hatosy as agents on Purvis’ team; and Stephen Graham as the epically bug nuts bank robber Baby Face Nelson.

Public Enemies is a really good film but it is also heavily flawed. In fact its greatest flaw is what keeps the film from reaching the greatness that so many Michael Mann films have reached in the past, and here it is: there is no fire. All the crucial ingredients are there, from a dynamite cast to an impeccable technical crew, and on their own they excel. But combined they are mostly going through the motions. This is mostly a fault of the unfocused screenplay. Some aspects of the story are given more time than others that need to be explored. Plus the orchestral score by the typically excellent Eliot Goldenthal often teeters on the edge of being overbearing, mostly in the romantic moments. The better musical cues are the more subdued ones and these are employed during the build-up to the action scenes. At least the soundtrack features a coolly eclectic and often anachronistic blend of modern electric blues and vintage jazz, with one particular being a soothing rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” by velvet-voiced songstress Diana Krall.

A new film from Michael Mann is normally a cause for celebration, but the master filmmaker loses his footing a bit here. This could be because the script Public Enemies was rushed into production to beat the Writer’s Guild of America strike. The movie never really takes off and it is a shame because this could have been a Mann classic. But it is still one of the best movies so far this summer and this year so if you are looking for an exciting period crime drama with top quality acting and blazing action scenes you could do a hell of a lot worse.

BAADASSSSS will return.


  1. You said it here best. This is the definitive review of the film.
    All I could think of was westerns as well, especially Peckinpah for this one.
    I wish the film was better.
    Excellent review. Both of us could have gone on for several more pages about this film.

    Comment by Jerry — July 6, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

  2. Yes, flawed. Like having a 1935 Plymouth and a 1936 Chevrolet in scenes with Dillinger (Depp).These cars were built AFTER he was dead._

    Comment by chuck halper — August 1, 2009 @ 12:20 am

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