Michael Mann is our poet laureate of bank robbery.
He’s also been a fairly accurate barometer of the zeitgeist, always running a few steps ahead, since the ’80s, when his work on “Miami Vice” was as era-defining for cop films as “Blade Runner” was for science-fiction.
So it would seem like an easy slam dunk to pair Mann with two white-hot movie stars in a true story set during the banking collapse of the Great Depression, replete with bank robberies, broken hearts, and badass machismo, all things that set Mann off.
Instead, “Public Enemies” struck me as a fairly mainstream take on an oft-told story, the final days of John Dillinger, featuring some wonderful work by one of our biggest movie stars while also definitively answering a question that’s been on my mind for a while now about another actor. I don’t think this is necessarily going to change anyone’s mind about Michael Mann at this late date, but I think it’s more accessible than “Miami Vice,” thanks to casting and the nature of the story.
Dillinger’s been well-documented on film. He’s been played by some powerhouse actors like Warren Oates and Martin Sheen and Lawrence Tierney to varying degrees of success. His story intersects with so many other quintessential American stories that it’s no wonder we keep circling back to it in our pop culture. The question each time has got to be, “What does this version bring to the table?”, and the answer with Michael Mann’s film involves all of his typical obsessions and interests, all of which seem to dovetail naturally with the story.
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Bryan Burroughs’s non-fiction book traces a very particular moment, when bank robbers were no longer seen as romantic figures as they had been for much of the Depression, thanks in large part to the rise of the idea of the G-man as a hero, and the FBI as a source of comfort for the American people. I think the best thing Mann’s film does is capture that idea that one age is ending as another begins, and because so much of the film focuses on Dillinger, we see it as a personal thing, not as some vague social trend.
The film picks up a few weeks after John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is released from a nine year stretch in prison, as he walks back into the same prison so he can break the rest of his gang out. It’s an audacious start, setting up just how hungry Dillinger is, how little he seems to fear capture or even death. By contrast, our introduction to Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) has him chasing down and killing another of the era’s most famous bank robbers, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum in what is basically a blood-spattered cameo), and Purvis comes off as a bit of a blank. Some audiences may be upset or surprised by just how supporting a role Purvis really is, but I’m glad the film isn’t forced into some balancing acts between the two storylines. Purvis is portrayed as just part of the machinery of the FBI, represented here by Billy Crudup’s spot-on take on J. Edgar Hoover, and the film isn’t just trying to echo the dynamic structure of “The Untouchables,” which was sort of my fear walking into it. Instead, Mann seems to be reaching for some fairly modern and specific subtext with his treatment of the FBI and the way they took their mandate to stop crime as permission to cross lines and employ questionable tactics. Sound familiar? Mann’s certainly hoping to tap that emotional nerve, but thankfully, he never oversells it.
Really, it’s a film about finding yourself as the last man standing, and as Dillinger watches the other icons of his age stumble, then fall, and as he watches J. Edgar Hoover consolidate his power and sell the story that the FBI is ready to “save” America, he knows his time is over. That sadness creeps into the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, who makes a nice major studio American debut here), and it’s positively crushing in the second half of the film. As a result of that narrative focus, this is Depp’s film almost 100%. And to his credit, he manages to make the character interesting and invest him with real soul without ever tipping over into camp. I’ve been a Depp fan for a lot of years, but the last five or six years, I’ve been waiting for him to turn down the Captain Jack a bit and give us something a little more somber, a little more internal. Dillinger’s a great fit for him, and there’s a scene towards the end of the movie, where Dillinger walks into the Dillinger Task Force room and examines it closely while no one’s around, that is almost completely wordless, all Depp, and the array of emotions he plays in that five minutes is truly impressive, a real reminder of just what this actor can do when asked.
I’m going to lay this theory out there: Christian Bale is not a movie star. He’s a very good character actor, and he is capable of being really captivating in a role, but I honestly don’t think he’s cut out to carry big mainstream movies. I’ve been feeling this way for a while, but this summer just confirms it for me. He’s good as Purvis, and part of the reason he works is because he’s just part of the cast. He does exactly as much as he needs to do, but there’s no undue weight on him to be likable or sympathetic, and there’s no ridiculous padding to the character, either. It’s not a movie star role. It’s not even really a co-starring role. And, as a result, he works. I think Hollywood’s going to eventually realize that, outside of a Batsuit, Christian Bale is not what they keep trying to make him be, and I’d much rather see him used like this, where he can be effective.
I’ve already heard much discussion of the way Mann shot the film with HD cameras instead of on film, and I think the bottom line is that digital photography will remain divisive with audiences. Several people I’ve spoken to hate the look of the film. Personally, I’m really intrigued by the way Mann’s been pushing the use of HD forward in his last few films. I loved the look of Los Angeles in “Collateral,” and felt like it was one of the most accurate reproductions of how this city really looks and feels at night. I was blown away by “Miami Vice” both times I saw it on the bigscreen, precisely because of how cold and unforgiving the look of the film was. Here, working in a period piece, the natural choice would be to make everything look burnished and golden and creamy and perfect, like most period pieces look. Instead, Mann seems to have warned his production designer Nathan Crowley (who worked on both of Nolan’s Batman films and who is gearing up on “John Carter Of Mars” right now) that there is no room for mistakes, and then treated his camera like a time machine, trying to make that era immediate instead of treating it like the distant past, shot through the gauze of nostalgia. There’s one sequence in particular, when the FBI shows up at a mountain lodge in the woods where Dillinger’s gang is hiding out, that is spectacular precisely because of that feeling of immediacy. Mann seems to use no artificial lights while shooting at night now, so the entire thing is lit by headlights or the muzzle flashes of tommy guns, and it’s really haunting as a result, as well as alarming because of the way people lurch up out of the darkness.
As the film winds down, there’s a feeling of inevitability to the way it plays, and the ending is appropriately ugly and anti-climactic. I found myself more affected by the sight of John Dillinger laid low than I expected to be, and I think that’s a testament to the beating heart that drives “Public Enemies.” Overall, it’s a solid, smart adult entry into the summer sweepstakes this year, and a nice moment for Mann, even if it doesn’t particularly break new ground.
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