Michael Mann’s latest film Public Enemies suffers from the biggest movie spoiler of all – history. Even a cursory glimpse into the life of legendary bank robber John Dillinger will reveal that he was gunned down outside of a movie theater by the police at the age of 31. The awareness of culturally significant deaths has also ruined such biopics as Milk, Control and Hunger (although The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gets points for not attempting to hide anything). It takes a good film to overcome the awful burden of an educated audience, and sadly, Public Enemies is not a good film. Therefore, when our anti-hero announces that he feels like going to the movies, you’ll be hard pressed not to breathe a sigh of relief.
Public Enemies takes place in 1933, an era in which local criminals were the tabloid fodder of the day. It seems unlikely these days that Paris Hilton would ever pop up on the front page for holding up a bank and killing dozens of police officers, but hey, I wouldn’t bet against it. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his band of merry men are tearing across America; ripping off banks without even breaking a sweat. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) christens the crook ‘Public Enemy #1’ in an attempt to inspire the Government to create a national police agency (the FBI). Hoover enlists the straight-cut Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to bring Dillinger to justice. Not that Dillinger is too concerned. He’s busy romancing Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a sweet coat-check girl who will pay dearly for their relationship.
Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger. I don’t need to tell you how he is in the film, because you already know. This is exactly how you imagine Johnny Depp would play a gangster. Charming, disarming and anything-but alarming, Depp’s Dillinger is handier with a smirk than a Tommy gun. But there is emptiness to the portrayal, and it becomes difficult to differentiate the character from the enigmatic actor. The great Roger Ebert complimented Depp’s performance, exclaiming: “for once an actor playing a gangster does not seem to base his performance on movies he has seen.” I’ll agree with that. Depp is playing a gangster who seems to have only seen Johnny Depp films.
But I’ll stop my criticism of Depp there because this film has far greater problems than a charismatic star. Michael Mann has been championing the use of HD recording equipment for the better part of the decade, and has applied it to his films with varying degrees of success. I don’t particularly enjoy seeing a film set during the Great Depression look like a Bourne movie; it completely removes that beautiful period sheen (although I’m sure that’s what Mann was going for). If the intended effect of HD is sharper images, then I encourage Mann to start work on a better HD camera. Much of the film is near incomprehensible due to the picture’s grainy composure. Combined with Mann’s penchant for natural lighting and shaky handycam, you won’t know whether to squint or retch.
Now if only Mann’s obsession with technical perfection extended to drafting screenplays. The script was adapted from Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and Mann. Although they clearly want to tell the story of Dillinger, they have carried far too many distractions over from Burrough’s book, including Hoover’s obsession and the growing threat of interstate gambling. The screenwriters’ indecision can even be seen in the film’s title: Public Enemies. They want to tell us the story of two men (Dillinger and Purvis) who shared a highly publicised vendetta against one another. But of course, this was not their relationship. Purvis was simply doing his job, and Dillinger couldn’t have cared less about the police. Dillinger’s identity as ‘Public Enemy #1’ was a publicity stunt on behalf of the FBI. And this is what we learn from the movie! The closer Mann and co. stick to the truth, the less focused the picture feels.
Ironically, Public Enemies shares the same flaws as brainless blockbusters Terminator: Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – it doesn’t matter how pretty your movie is if we don’t care about the characters. The film features a stellar, completely underutilised cast. Dillinger’s fellow bandits are portrayed by David Wenham, Steven Graham and Giovanni Ribisi; good luck identifying them amongst the dozens of other co-conspirators in all those night-time shoot-outs. Depp, Cotillard, Bale and Crudup are all serviceable, although I blame Mann for not allowing us to engage with his characters. This is a film in which the most complicated arcs can be described as going from ‘living’ to ‘dead.’ Public Enemies ends with a pretty obvious nod to Jean Luc Godard’s new wave classic Breathless, a film more famous for its style than its substance. Hmmm.