Fight the power
Crime film maestro Michael Mann goes back to the 1930s for his latest, the characteristically hypnotic and moody Public Enemies. Johnny Depp does amazing things as John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber who should’ve opted for a nice summer drive rather than a movie on a hot night in 1934.
Mann continues to be a master of stylistic crime drama. Public Enemies stands alongside his Heat, Collateral and Manhunter as a masterful entry to the genre.
Depp, even though he is 15 years older than Dillinger was when he died, is right at home in the role. Anybody who has seen a picture of Dillinger’s smirk from old photos will know that Depp has the man’s look and attitude nailed in this movie. And when Dillinger smiles his menacing smile as he watches Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama just moments before being gunned down in the street, you can see Depp reveling in the moment. No doubt Dillinger probably related to the goings on in the last movie he watched, and Depp portrays this eerily.
Besides the Depp performance, the most notable thing about the film is the shootouts, and there are plenty. Mann actually did a night shoot at the actual location of the legendary Little Bohemia Lodge gunfight in Wisconsin. I think some folks associated with this film are going to get nominated for some sound Oscars, because the thud of bullets hitting trees in the forest during this scene is appropriately frightening. Mann also goes to great lengths for Dillinger’s two jail breakouts, and shot at Indiana’s actual Crown Point jail, where the gangster carved a fake gun out of wood and used it for his escape.
Mann and his co-screenwriters take plenty of artistic license when it comes to historical accuracy with this film. Notorious criminals, such as Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), die before Dillinger in the film, but actually outlived the man in real life—although they all perished in the same year. There’s actually a very odd moment in the film when Depp’s Dillinger meets FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and calls him the man who got Pretty Boy Floyd. History tells us that Floyd was still alive at the time depicted in the movie.
It’s easy to forgive the historical inaccuracies. It’s also easy to forgive actress Marion Cotillard for slipping back into her French accent during a prison torture scene. Cotillard, who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette, is a fine actress—she won an Oscar for La Vie en rose—who might need to work on that American accent a little more. Still, her work as a Wisconsin girl taken in by Dillinger’s charms is captivating.
While Depp might be the main attraction here, the work of Bale as the determined Purvis is just as powerful. The script gives the man an exaggerated role in history as far as bagging bad guys is concerned, but Bale’s depiction of the crime fighter is haunting (and made all the more interesting because he is, indeed, Batman).
If the movie has a major fault, it’s that it tries to jam too much into its running time. J. Edgar Hoover, as portrayed by Billy Crudup, could’ve used a little more screen time. Mann seemingly avoids much of the controversy that plagued Hoover’s early career, including his animosity toward Melvin Purvis. In this film, he’s basically just portrayed as an ornery boss who talks like he should be announcing a Chicago Cubs baseball game.
These are mere quibbles. The film is one of the year’s best so far and gives us another chance to bask in the greatness of Depp and Mann. No doubt, there are many other movies that could be made about the multiple figures in this film. As for showing us what Dillinger was about, Public Enemies completes this task with the style and substance we’ve come to expect from Mann.