Movies like “Public Enemies” always make me wonder about our culture’s fascination with such notorious criminals. Why do we turn murderers and crooks into celebrities and heroes? Why do we want to hear their stories told, again and again? Why is John Dillinger the hero of this movie, and not Melvin Purvis, the lawman who finally took him down?
I think we glamorize criminals because most of us — the normal people – feel like we might like to break the law, but we’d never get away with it. Getting away with it requires smarts, and courage, and talent. Getting away with it separates the criminal from everyone else – it makes him an individual, not only above the law, but above the rest of us who are afraid of the law. In addition to all else it is, law enforcement is essentially a normalizing force within society, forever striving to prove that criminals are, in the end, just like everyone else. And because in America we worship individuality, we respect the criminal as an individual, and resist the normalizing forces. That’s why Dillinger’s the hero, and Purvis the villain.
Johnny Depp plays Dillinger as a machine of efficiency and precision. He reminds me of no one so much as Jason Bourne. He is a careful planner, a ruthless executer, and a good judge of character. He is surrounded by violent men, but is not himself violent. He knows that violence just makes things more complicated. One gets the feeling that he robs banks simply because it’s the most interesting and challenging job that’s been offered to him. In 1933, there weren’t a lot of other career options.
The 30’s were the “public enemy era,” with folks like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson all garnering plenty of attention from the press and the police, but Dillinger was Public Enemy No.1. Depp’s Dillinger isn’t all that concerned with what the public thinks about him, except as it affects his ability to do his job – which is to rob banks. He refuses to do kidnappings, because the public doesn’t like kidnapping. “Who cares what the public thinks?” an associate asks him. “I do,” he says. “I hide out among ’em. We gotta care what they think.”
On the other side of the law are J. Edgar Hoover, played with crisp syllables and suits by Billy Crudup, and his no.1 G-Man, Purvis (Christian Bale.) While Hoover’s manipulating the press to strong-arm Congress into creating the FBI, Purvis, like Dillinger, seems more interested in doing his job. When Hoover’s much-publicized G-Men can’t get the job done because they’ve spent more time in an office than on a stakeout, Purvis brings in seasoned lawmen who know how to handle their weapons. Bale gives Purvis the same kind of hushed intensity he brings to John Connor and Bruce Wayne, even when he’s saddled with clunker lines like “He could be anywhere….but he’s not” and “he will be armed…and extremely dangerous.” Really?
In the middle of it all is Marion Cotillard, who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend. Their courtship is odd; either it’s love at first sight for him, or any girl will do. She keeps telling him she’s crazy to be with him; he keeps telling her he’s going to take care of her. It’s as if the whole point of the relationship is to raise the stakes, to make life more dangerous and thus more interesting.
Michael Mann wrote and directed “Public Enemies,” and it’s startling to see the parallels between this, ostensibly based on a true story, and an older Mann classic, “Heat.” Dillinger and Purvis could be De Niro and Pacino, each caught up in their job, not too worried about good or evil, operating with a grudging respect for the other. In both movies, there’s a girl, for whom the criminal decides to give up crime, after one last heist, which of course is the one where he gets caught. I’d say “Public Enemies” is an updated version of “Heat,” except it takes place 40 years earlier.
What has been updated are Mann’s camera techniques. “Public Enemies” is shot digitally, and Mann, more than perhaps anybody else, is doing exciting, experimental work with digital cameras. The primary action scene — Purvis and his men ambush Dillinger at the Little Bohemia house, and just about everyone but Dillinger and Purvis end up dead — is shot in the dark, mostly with handhelds, and with very little supplemental light. Headlights and flashlights illuminate what they’re pointed at, and everything else; gunbursts light up the woods for brief moments, and we see shadows and reflections flit past. It’s exciting and new; it’s also disorienting and a little strange, as it’s so different from the “normal” way to film an action scene.
“Public Enemies” slows down and grows ponderous as it nears the end; Hoover starts to get desperate, and advocates methods that make him sound like Dick Cheney. And, as with just about any movie in which we know the criminal/hero is going to die in the end, we are given lots of room to believe that Dillinger chose his own death. In the theater just before he is gunned down, we seem him watching Clark Gable play a gangster on the big screen. He smiles as Gable goes to his death with brash, quotable soundbytes on his lips. When he is gunned down, he tries to manage some last words, but nobody’s sure what it is he said. Apparently, Hollywood gangster and realtime gangsters don’t have much in common after all.
- if you’d like to see Johnny Depp try on yet another hat, and then act like he was born to wear it.
- if you like crime/gangster/shoot ’em up flicks.
- if you’re familiar with the works of Michael Mann and want to keep up.
- if you’re looking for glib, quotable gangster types. “Public Enemies” is pretty subdued and serious.
- if gangster/action/violence just isn’t your thing anyway.