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Public Enemies (2009) November 29, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Movie Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Filmmakers can be aware that certain circumstances beyond their control can conspire in a way that affects the general perception of their work. One of such irresistible forces manifested itself last year when global markets collapsed and everyone started talking about greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. That period of history suddenly became one of the most talked about and films with plots set in it were bound to receive additional publicity, as well as increased scrutiny by those who like to compare cold historic data with its contemporary artistic interpretation. PUBLIC ENEMIES, 2009 crime biopic directed by Michael Mann, was the best example of those phenomena.

The film, written by Mann, Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman, is based on Bryan Burough’s non-fiction book PUBLIC ENEMIES: AMERICA’S GREATEST CRIME WAVE AND THE BIRTH OF FBI, 1933-34. The book dealt with series of dramatic events that gripped imagination of American public during the first two years of Roosevelt’s administration, namely the exploits of the few professional criminals who would later become staple of a popular culture, as well as lawmen who tried to put violent end to their careers. This short episode of American history proved to be treasure chest for Hollywood filmmakers; almost every major character in that drama received an homage in the form of a separate biopic. Michael Mann’s film, however, concentrated almost exclusively on the best known of them all – John Dillinger.

Plot begins in 1933 when Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), already hardened and experienced criminal, liberates his friends from prison in a daring and violent raid. His newly created gang then begins series of spectacular bank robberies, with local and state authorities unable to stop them because of gang’s clever use of fast automobiles and escapes across state lines. This crime spree is seen as an opportunity by J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup), young and ambitious director of US Bureau of Investigation who dreams about turning his underfunded and insignificant federal agency into America’s true national police force. His favourite and equally ambitious agent Melvyn Purvis (played by Christian Bale) is to lead the manhunt whose prime target happens to be Dillinger. Purvis and his men, mostly young and inexperienced college graduates, are at first outmatched, outwitted and outgunned by street-smart gangsters. While Dillinger enjoys luxurious lifestyle, romance with Chicago hat check girl Billie Frechete (played by Marion Cotillard) and reputation of a folk hero among impoverished Depression-era masses, Purvis must abandon his “scientific” methods of law enforcement. Instead he relies on old-fashioned methods like physical torture and informants from criminal underworld, as well as more experienced lawmen like former Texas Ranger Charles Winstead (played by Stephen Lang).

On paper, Michael Mann looked like ideal choice to cover Dillinger saga. He had built his reputation on manneristic combinations of intense drama and even more intense action and used to portray almost epic-like struggles between strong characters on the both sides of law. Therefore, PUBLIC ENEMIES looked like a film tailor-made for Mann, with plenty of opportunity to make great or, at least, a very good film.

Sadly, most of those opportunities were missed, although Mann did his homework in strictly technical sense. Action scenes are directed very competently, and great effort was invested in portraying fascinating saga of Dillinger as realistically as possible. Mann used digital video, clothes, weapons, vehicles and other props and details clearly belong to 1930s. Even the locations used to portray some of the most legendary shootouts are authentic. However, despite all this, PUBLIC ENEMIES is looking false and the viewer is having impression of watching routine low-budget television biopic instead of genuine Hollywood epic.

History buffs would probably point out that Mann’s realistic style only underlines his liberal – to put it mildly – and so Hollywood-like attitude towards historic accuracy. Chronology of the events of Dillinger saga and Hoover’s anti-crime campaign is completely wrong, and many of the characters are either composites or significantly different from their real-life equivalents. Defenders of Mann could use the usual argument of accurate portrayal real life – even in case of such larger-than-life characters like Dillinger – not being attractive for the audience. Furthermore, Burroughs’ book with its epic scope simply couldn’t be realistically adapted in feature film format. Mann was, therefore, forced to cut corners.

However, even those viewers who couldn’t care less about historical accuracy might notice some major flaws in PUBLIC ENEMIES. The most obvious is casting. Johnny Depp was great as larger-than-life outlaw in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series. That flair and panache is visibly absent in his portrayal of Dillinger. For most of the film he is cold and efficient criminal with almost unnatural abilities to escape law enforcement; he looks more like a vampire or similar gothic character rather than ordinary average American with whom so many impoverished inhabitants of Depression-era America could sympathise. Another bad casting decision is Marion Cotillard, whose presence could be explained only by her latest Oscar and not too justified requirement to have actress who speaks English with thick French accent. There is hardly any chemistry between Depp and Cotillard and their characters’ tragic romance looks only like a lame attempt to give some kind of emotional content to otherwise cold and soulless portrayal of history.

There doesn’t seem to be any purpose for PUBLIC ENEMIES apart from giving “new” and “realistic” treatment to the story already told by Hollywood. There are, however, some hints of this film being allegory of our times. Hoover’s “War on Crime” is hard to disassociate with Bush’s “War on Terror”; scenes of citizens being wiretapped or criminal suspects being brutally tortured could be viewed 1930s equivalent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, just as Dillinger and his gangsters could be viewed as 1930s equivalent of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda – convenient boogeymen that justified suspension of civil liberties and all-powerful government Leviathan. Mann, on the other hand, missed the opportunity to portray the political background behind Hoover’s campaign, as well as the increasing rivalry and rift between director of FBI and its top agent. There are very few scenes with Crudup who – by portraying politician – appears to be more alive and realistic than Bale as robot-like Purvis. Michael Mann’s veteran Stephen Lang, on the other hand, is much more effective as quiet but efficient FBI agent with Wild West experience.

On the other hand, Mann missed opportunity to make parallels between Great Depression and its contemporary equivalent. World of 1930s is, on the surface, portrayed accurately, yet its main feature – poverty and hopelessness created by Depression – is nowhere to be seen. The audience is left wondering where is “public” that was supposed to be thrilled and scared by Dillinger, and why he was its “enemy” in the first place. More than three decades ago John Milius answered some of those questions in DILLINGER, less ambitious but more effective and memorable Hollywood tale about greatest Depression-era criminal. Michael Mann, just like in ALI, again showed that he doesn’t handle biopics that well.

RATING: 4/10




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