197) Public Enemies (2009) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released: July 2009 Date Seen: June 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
In thinking about Public Enemies, Michael Mann's character study of John Dillinger, I can't help but admire the accomplished stylist's naive dedication to delineating the legend of the notorious Depression-era bank robber from the man. Mann's recent preoccupation with the verite sheen that DV cameras can give even a period piece strikes gold here, providing a worthy counterpoint to the grandiose self-manufactured fables of Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both it and Public Enemies present their anti-heroes as romantic figures eager to prove their towering stature as the wanted legends the media turned them into. That's where their similarities end. Mann's film insists that a line, no matter how subtle, can be made in showing how Dillinger aspired to be more mythic than human.
The John Dillinger of Public Enemies is both capable of fulfilling the role he makes for himself and well aware of its artificial nature. He immediately impresses us as a man of ruthless action. When breaking out of prison, he walks out with supreme confidence and turns on a dime to return fire to the prison guards once they realize something's up. That introduction is important because for the bulk of the movie, Depp sweet talks his way through encounters rather than using that foregrounding brute force. Similarly, his incessant barrage of charming one-liners is a double-edge sword, something meant to endear us to him but also remind us that the man is performing all the time.
With that in mind, Johnny Depp plays a great Dillinger, transitioning wonderfully from his garbled singing in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd to mumbled dialogue in this film that betrays his silky small talk. Through his taut body language, he exudes the pensive air of a man that boasts about having done many horrible things but secretly dreads having to do them again. Though Melvin Purvis (a steely Christian Bale), the G-man assigned to capture Dillinger is more of a typical Mann's man--a troubled man-of-action that can identify a little too much with his immoral opposite--Depp's Dillinger brings with it a kind of raggedness that handily undermines his bad boy charms.
At the same time, Mann lends Dillinger a counter-intuitive integrity by omitting the more tawdry bits of his story. You cannot separate the man that broke out of prison with a blacked-up bar of soap from the man famed for his, er, sexual prowess without excising an integral part of Dillinger's character (It was 20 inches long! Preserved in The Smithsonian! Had its own holster?!).
To keep Dillinger's story simple, crucial details are omitted and/or fudged around, undermining the film's key concept of showing how the "real" Dillinger created the Dillinger we know and love. Insisting that he was so lovesick for his on-again, off-again love interest Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) that she was the last thought on his mind is folly. In reality, he died while accompanying Polly Hamilton, his girlfriend of the moment, and Ana Cumpanas, the mythic "lady in red," to the movies. Within the film's storytelling framework, Dillinger and Frechette's love interest subplot makes sense and is effective thanks to Cotillard's wildcat act but once its introduced to the harsh air of the outside world, it tarnishes an otherwise exemplary bit of pulp introspection.