A Review of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann’s handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans.  Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger’s gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events.  There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there’s not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory.  The writers start “in media res” to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn’t work when you can’t even identify the peripheral characters from each other.  What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with.  There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger’s Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his “celebrity” — just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

Cotillard makes a successful first stateside bid for stardom.

Cotillard makes a successful first bid for stateside stardom.

From a technical standpoint, there’s plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences.  Mann’s use of HD video to shoot the film gives the period-piece gangster film an interesting texture.  I found it refreshing to watch a Depression Era film not washed out in sepia tones and instead look crisp and fresh, with the nighttime shots especially compelling from a composition standpoint.  However, there are times when in tight quarters that the digital camera-work gives the film a “home movie” aesthetic, and whether shooting on film or in digital, the shaky handheld work during action scenes is always a mistake in my book.  Mann also attempts to do some throwback Fritz Lang M-style work on the sound design, which works well in some of the “silent” scenes but often results in dialogue that is hard to hear and gunshots that are clamoring.  These artistic choices are highly debatable, but I admire Mann’s vision to do something different with a generic story.  Whether you think Mann’s manipulations work or not will be left to a matter of personal taste.

Public Enemies is a film composed of many handsome elements from the costuming to the finely detailed set designs to the soundtrack, which most notably creates a recurring theme with “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”  There are also some good standalone scenes including a well shot rain-soaked police escorted airplane landing in Indiana, some charming movie theater moments, a thrilling nighttime shootout in the woods, and a killer Cotillard-focused coda that would’ve packed more of a wallop had the rest of the film added up to the sum of its parts.  While it’s easy to admire the work of Depp and Cotillard, Bale is off key in his attempt to add subtlety and nuance to his hollowly scripted character.  Sadly, Mann’s film is a good-looking but shallow exercise in self-seriousness largely due to a faulty script that never successfully identifies the heart of the story.  Watching that tear run down Cotillard’s cheek before the credits roll, though, you might swear you had just watched something better.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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9 comments on “A Review of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “Sadly, Mann’s film is a good-looking but shallow exercise in self-seriousness largely due to a faulty script that never successfully identifies the heart of the story.”

    Well David, you appear to be mixed with this one. I’ll probably be seeing it later today, so I definitely will return to your review here (which I did read in its entirety, it’s such a perceptive piece, as always) but the reaction to this seems to be all over the map. I must admit, with me that HD Video emplyment is still problematic, and you sharply deliniated the pitfalls. I do like the observation you made that many who ultimately may find this film tepid, may feel they have to say they like it anyway. How true!

    Sam, I eagerly await to hear your thoughts after seeing the film. –DHS

  2. Katie says:

    I’d argue that the secondary characters aren’t “clumsily weaved” in but are actually staying true to the real events. Dillinger did interact with a lot of people but the film doesn’t have time to develop them all so it gives a nod. I guess its a film that makes you work a bit, cos I went and looked up some of the other characters afterwards to find out what their role was, and I can see how you could argue that you shouldn’t have to, but I kind of like that the film made me interested to know more rather than spending tedious time explaining who’s who, or writing out important people.

    I agree about the shaky camera work though, and I think the script was missing something. I’m probably biased as a Depp fan but I did really enjoy the film.

    Great Review.

    Katie, thanks for reading. You make a good point about the film making you want to learn more about the characters and time period. I think it would’ve done well to paint more of a backstory though, which probably would’ve made me want to research further at home even more. –DHS

  3. claude says:

    I was a bit disappointed by the movie. I don’t think it gave justice to the entire time period and didn’t really get into Dillinger. I found some interesting comments about the film on pandalous:
    http://www.pandalous.com/nodes/public_enemies_theatrical

    Claude, I agree…though there were a few “moments” like when John and Billie first met and they danced to “Bye, Bye Blackbird” where I was almost transported. –DHS

  4. Debra says:

    I love the fact that you really “saw” the film. By that I mean you are only person thus far who observed the flaws.
    I was disappointed, I also felt a lot of the conversations could not be heard. I am an intelligent person and I lost track who was a good guy who was a bad guy, another words I actually got a bit confused.
    I felt that “artsy” approach to walking and filming and the panning segment was horribly done.
    I also thought the storyline would have been improved if they had elaborated on his Robin Hood behavior,which was very minimal in the movie. I won’t say this was a not a go see film, but I will say it is a “don’t expect to much film” I will be showing your review to the gentleman I went with,so he will know I am not the only who did not think this was 100% great like he did.
    I have been holding off reading your review on Away We Go’ I will be viewing that this weekend along with Cherie. Have a great 4th of July. Thanks for letting me know of your new posts I really do enjoy your well written reviews.

    Debra, I am happy to have you as a reader…and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Away We Go… –DHS

  5. John says:

    I think this is a terrific film, though I admit a lot depends upon what you bring to it. If you feel, as I do, somewhat disenfranchised and overwhelmed (by trillion dollar health reform, for example) shooting a Tommy gun off in the woods is appealing. (PS I don’t like guns, and never have, but was raised listening to “Gangbusters” on the radio in bed at night with the lights out.) Psychological depth was never at the heart of gangster movies— that’s a later addition from the sixties and seventies—but that glint in Depp’s eye as he watches Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama on the screen is the same one we share watching Depp as Dillinger today. Who gives a fuck, we just want to be in the movies. The politicking of J. Edgar Hoover, the ambivalence of straight-guy Christian Bale are enough of a hint why we’re in such a mess today. When the fetching Marion Cotillard tears over the departed gangster at the end, we do to. Not only for him but for ourselves. No, this movie is perfect as it is. If you don’t like it, you’re not bringing your true self to the experience. http://www.SpankyAndJohnGoToTheMovies.com

    John, interesting perspective…I think many people might share it. I did, admittedly, enjoy the Tommy-gun action, the movie theater moment you describe, and Cotillard’s closing scene. I just didn’t think the movie worked as a whole and I suppose it came down to the character development for me–and a few of the technical quirks I alluded to. –DHS

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    Well David, I am back with my report, after having seen the film Friday night. Alas I completely agree with your issues, and once again Michael “style over substance” Mann has struck. Here’s what I entered at another blog:

    “I continue to feel disdain with the video filmmaking style used here, and I found that we never got to know who Dillinger was in the film. Conjoined was an uncharacteristically flavorless and remote performance from Johnny Depp, who gave a one-note turn, while Christian Bale was likewise a monotonous introvert. Ironically, despite assertions to the contrary on this thread, Marion Cotillard against all odds, gave the film’s best performance, as she was a power keg of emotions, waiting to explode, like the film did in so many machine-gun set pieces that were rendered mute by their endlessness. I’ll admit that the clothes, cars, music, Depression era movie theatres and atmospheric replication was impeccable, and that Mann does exhibit that singular style. But with me it is largely style over substance.
    However, I stress again that this is only my own opinion, which at best is no better or worse than those who have expressed with great eloquence and command, a differing opinion.”

    Sam, I think you’re right on the money. Cotillard was great…I’m really looking forward to her future projects. I heard she will be in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. I think she has the potential to have a hugely successful career–heck, she already has that Oscar. –DHS

  7. Jason says:

    I’m not quite sure what director Michael Mann wants me to take away from this version of Dillinger’s story. There are various allusions to Dillinger as a folk hero. He robs from the bank, but makes sure that the civilians receive their money. Is Dillinger making some social statement against the corrupt powers of the government? Well if he is, he never admits as much. Perhaps he just likes being a celebrity and realizes that if he treats civilians with respect he’ll be better liked. He blatantly tells Billie, “I rob banks.” However, Dillinger is lacking the motivation or general purpose of that line as it was proclaimed twice in Bonnie and Clyde. The eponymous gangsters of that film declared that statement as if it were an honor. They were counter-revolutionary figures, living off youthful exuberance, fetching nervousness, and a distinctly proclaimed social conscience. Dillinger, instead, echoes a different gangster in his proclamation to want to be, “top of the world,” conjuring up the image of James Cagney screaming his lungs out, and about to be burnt to a crisp in White Heat. Mann is just referencing other gangster movies, bringing with him nothing new, besides the fact that this film is shot in a high definition video, and what we’re left with is a protagonist without any ambitions or purpose for existence.

    Read my full review at http://cfilmc.wordpress.com/

    Jason, I think you are spot on there. –DHS

  8. ccyager says:

    Hi, David, I just saw this movie a couple days ago and felt it was a good example of Michael Mann’s visual obsessions. I agree that Cotillard was fabulous — she showed her character changing under the influence of Dillinger. I disagree about Bale. He and Crudrup had the two most difficult roles in this movie, in my opinion. I liked that both played them in an understated fashion rather than going for the heroic. It brought out their flaws as characters/people in the story, especially Crudrup’s Hoover.

    We have been conditioned to expect the BIG SHOWDOWN in movies of this genre, or westerns, action adventure flicks. What shocked me at the end, and I’m amazed you didn’t pick up on this, was that they shot Dillinger in the BACK. They didn’t try to capture him now that all his buddies were dead and no one was there to break him out. They didn’t have a face-to-face. No, they shot him in the back. In a crowd. What does that say about the FBI at that time? About law enforcement? And how does that relate to today?

    Dillinger’s bank robbing reminded me of Wall Street, Bank of America, Citibank, et. al. In the 1930’s the bank robbers carried machine guns and forced bank presidents to open the vault. Nowadays, the robbers WORK for the banks and investment banks. And whose money to they take? Dillinger’s belief that the money in the bank was the bank’s was, of course, short-sighted. The money belonged to the depositors, i.e. the bank’s customers, the people who glamorized and glorified Dillinger. At least we’re not glorifying present day bank robbers.

    The camera work — I actually found it interesting from a change of POV aspect. Mann plays around with this interestingly (to me). We have the omniscient camera shots, the slo-mos for emphasis, and then the handheld shots in which the viewer is pulled into the action and the suspense increases. At those times, the POV is closer to the viewer’s through the camera than at other times. The very last shot: I longed for him to cut to black on Cotillard’s face immediately after the Blackbird reference, rather than waiting and showing the FBI agent leaving. We could have heard him leaving while our eyes are on her pain.

    My quibble: Why, oh why, at the very beginning, did Dillinger and his buddy park their car so far away from the penitentiary’s door? They had to walk a fair distance, which you’d think would be a problem when they’re leaving, exposing them to the guards’ guns. I know, I know — Mann probably decided to forego the “realism” here of them parking much closer, maybe even below the wall to make the car hard to see, in order to have a carefully choreographed sequence with lots and lots of gun play.

    My other quibble: When they’re running through the Wisconsin woods in the middle of the night, what is the source of light? There is a light off to the right and it’s never identified. If they were really out in the Wisconsin boonies, in the 1930’s, it would have been pitch black and hard to see anyone much less shoot at them. I have no problem with the light as long as the source is identified.

    And it’s always a lot easier to quibble and critique a movie than to make one oneself….! (smile)

    My humble 2 cents….Cinda

    Cinda, fantastic insights as always! You make some valid points–especially about Dillinger being shot in the back and the magical light source in the woods! I think we agree this was a mixed bag, but still worth watching for some interesting elements. –DHS

  9. Elizabeth T. says:

    Dillinger answers Frechette’s question about his background, the gist of which was: “I was born in Indiana. My mom died. My dad beat me because he didn’t know any better. What more is there to know?” I think this says it all. As far as the Public is concerned, there is nothing else.

    And, with the cast-complexity – I’m not sure that it was such a bad choice. Should it always be easy to keep track of every minor character? I’m not sure.

    The title, I noticed afterwards, is in the plural: Public Enemies. Dillinger wasn’t alone in any of this. The title did leave me wondering if Frechette was lumped in there with him as an ‘enemy’. And, if so, how exactly was the public defining ‘enemy’, because Hoover wasn’t exactly the nicest person for the Public. Or was the FBI supposed to be one of the public’s enemies, too?

    And, yes, I too think Cotilliard was the highlight of the movie: completely believable. Perhaps that is aided by the fact that I’ve never seen her in anything else.

    I’ve not read your reviews before. This was nice – I’ll have to check back for others. Cheers … Elizabeth

    Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    I think you make good notice of the “background” Dillinger provides to Billie…perhaps that was all she needed…but I think the audience deserved more. And I think you should be able to identify minor characters, especially in a fact-based tale such as this.

    Good point about the plural title…it does open room for discussion on who the Public Enemies actually were? Maybe it was the FBI, because according to this film, the public loved Dillinger and his gang.

    I look forward to your return visits to the blog! –DHS

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