Public Enemies (5/10)

Public Enemies

“My name is John Dillinger, and I rob banks.” One thing that’s very important to understand about this character is that this isn’t just a statement of what he does. It’s his belief in who he is – Michael Mann’s latest pic focuses mostly on how much Dillinger wasn’t thinking about what he would down the line. He just did it, and did it like nobody else could, at the same time managing to break out of a couple of prisons and gain national acclaim and the public’s respect and sympathy. So if this is the case, why is so little of Mann’s epic devoted to prison breaks, bank robberies, or coverage of how much the public loved him? He was like a gangster Jesse James – a celebrity criminal who was also a good man, yet there’s four, maybe five scenes in the whole flick where we witness this, and the bank robberies and prison breaks play on automatic with zero tension at all. With any movie about the life of a historical figure, you have to make them a real person, not some ghost of history wandering through pre-set events, and except for Johnny Depp’s magnetic performance, this is exactly what Public Enemies feels like.

Part of the problem is the structure – the movie opens with Dillinger breaking out of prison, soon after which he finds shelter at the house of a friend. Not long after that, Dillinger and his men rob a bank, and during all this we learn how Dillinger already has a national reputation and notoriety. He’s already a superman, breaking out of prisons and robbing banks in a minute forty flat. Where’s the build-up? There is none, and Dillinger’s personal history is recounted in about three sentences to Billie Frechette. It’s also disappointing because if Mann’s gonna deprive us of this, you would at least think he’d give us some inside info on how the numerous robberies and prison breaks were planned and executed. Nope. Dillinger and his men zoom into the banks, snatch the money, drive away with hostages, and are scot-free. The two prison breaks we see in the movie are laughable, as is the general incompetence of any police that Dillinger comes into contact with, except for one: Christian Bale.

Which brings us to yet another flaw in the movie. Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard (as Dillinger’s love Billie Frechette), and Christian Bale (as Melvin Purvis) feel like the only three actors in this film. When one of Purvis or Dillinger’s men dies there’s a brief grieving period, maybe, or a shocked silence, but none of the true impact of actual people dying – merely puppets who need to die before the film finishes its running time. You never really care that these people are dying – and it’s only thanks to the charisma and strength of these three actors that you end up caring about their characters at all. Dillinger’s “courtship” of Frechette, despite feeling artificial (like most historical romances the guy and the girl hit it off virtually right away, there’s a small, token “will-they-won’t they” moment, and then the guy wins over the girl and that’s that), actually works because of the sizzling chemistry Cotillard and Depp share. It’s subtle and the actors bring a reality that the script is completely lacking. Bale does his best with the role of Purvis, a man who is part of the Bureau of Investigation (before it was the FBI – a plotline the film comes and goes with), and must deal with some of the moral implications of torture methods employed by the Bureau to get information. Yet once again, the drama is cartoonish – you never get the sense this torturing stuff really bothers anyone but Purvis, and it’s not a complete story – more like a frayed thread stumbling through about 50% of the movie. Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover makes what’s essentially a cameo and is the one to let Purvis know that they will do ANYTHING to catch Dillinger, even if it means torture and violence. It may have actually happened, but the way it’s said and with the script that’s used it’s obviously a clumsy attempt to comment on Bush’s administration’s torture methods.
Public Enemies 2

It’s a shame that this movie is so unfocused, because there’s a lot of material to mine here. You’ve got Dillinger and Frechette’s romance, Frechette abandoning her previously simple life to follow Dillinger wherever he may take her, Dillinger’s love affair with the press and his incredible ability to break out of prisons and rob banks, Dillinger always looking to the very next thing, but nowhere beyond that, and how Frechette challenges this notion within him and how it hurts those around him, Purvis’s inner struggle about what he must do and how he must find and destroy this man for the greater good, despite seeing how much the public loves him. There’s endless possibilities, but Mann just seems focused on one: Dillinger’s living-in-the-moment, but even THAT’S not too well developed and doesn’t quite come together at the end. One thing that’s always consistent is Dillinger’s cockiness – near the end of the movie he walks straight into the office of the FBI task force that has been searching for him for weeks, in the “disguise” of wearing a mustache and sunglasses. He asks a bunch of agents, who are standing around a radio, what the score to the game is. They answer him nonchalantly, not even noticing that the man they’re hunting for is standing right there, really not all that well disguised. It is at this point that the movie cements its status as merely being about a ghost walking through history, untouchable even when he does something as stupid as walk straight into the lion’s den. It’s a shame, because looking at Dillinger as a real human being who did all these things would have been much more interesting than what we received: a story about a guy who robbed banks, escaped prison, fell in love, and died, without ever once really looking to the future.

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3 Responses to “Public Enemies (5/10)”

  1. I’ve just created a post on my blog http://dougbond.wordpress.com regarding which Johnny Depp movie’s are people’s favorite’s. I liked “Public Enemies”, but it was hardly his best movie…actually, I tend to think that some of the least seen movie’s he’s made are perhap’s some of his best…”The Libertine” come’s to mind. In any case, let me know what you think and if at all possible, post some link’s on my blog to some interesting Johnny Depp info…alway’s a fan of JD! Thank’s! 🙂

  2. I never saw the Libertine, but I remember studying the Earl of Rochester in an English class and his infamous debauched ways right around the time the movie came out. I wanted to see it but never got around to it. Thanks for the comment, I’ll have to check it out!

  3. that movie was the best thing i have ever seen in my life and now i am doing a report on john dillinger and now i am finding things about him i never new and it is so much fun

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