Year of release: 2009
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale
Director: Michael Mann
Viewing: Majestic Theater, Williston
Public Enemies is a thrilling cinema experience, but it falls short of being a great film, mostly due to what is not on the screen. What director Michael Mann does deliver is picture perfect. The acting, the photography, the sets and costumes are all virtually flawless. Johnny Depp looks to be having a blast as Depression-era gangster John Dillinger — public enemy number one. The movie starts with a jail break and then follows Dillinger and the FBI’s efforts to nab him. Everyone knows Dillinger was killed coming out of Chicago’s Biograph Theater, which is just about, though not quite, where the film ends. This isn’t a story so much as it is a timeline, but those two and a half hours are so well done and exciting that I was glued to the screen.
The movie is supposedly based on the book of the same title by Bryan Burrough. However, Burrough’s book is about how America’s first war on crime led to the transformation of the FBI from an insignificant government bureau into a national law enforcement agency. Consequently, the careers of all the famous gangsters from the early 1930s are included, and the focus is on the FBI agents and J. Edgar Hoover.
Mann has chosen to focus his film on the last few exciting months of John Dillinger’s life. As a result, we do not get any character development. We don’t learn much about Dillinger’s past. Nor do we learn much about Dillinger’s FBI nemesis, Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale. I’ve read several reviews that slam Bale’s performance, but what he is asked to do, he does well. It is not fair to critique him for not playing the role the way you want it played. Mann is intentionally contrasting the style of the outlaw with that of Hoover’s fledgling Bureau. Dillinger is having the time of his life, while Purvis is portrayed as a warrior monk, a man with no passions outside his work.
The one performance I will criticize is Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard. She plays Dillinger’s girlfriend. It is a mystery to me why Mann chose a French actress who clearly has trouble with American pronunciation. Yes, she is beautiful, but so are any number of American actresses.
Mann knows how to stage a movie gun fight. Watching his earlier films Last of the Mohicans and Heat, I felt as if I were in the middle of the battles. And the same goes for Public Enemies. Apparently, Mann used high definition digital recording for this film, which delivers an edgy surreality to the screen that I found very effective, especially for the gun fights.
If you think you’d enjoy a film filled with blazing Tommy guns, sharp Fedoras, wide lapels, intrepid G-men and daring gangsters, you’ll enjoy Public Enemies. Like me, however, you may find that you want to read Burrough’s book afterward so you can add some depth to these characters.