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Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)

January 13, 2012

Originally written for a long abandoned former blog back in July 2009
(I must admit that I do have a relatively strong inclination to revisit this film to see if I would now like it, considering changes in my taste over the last few years.)

Michael Mann’s intention with his use of the same digital approach incorporated in his previous outing, Miami Vice, for this film was, from my understanding, to make it feel like the audience is in the 1930s, rather than simply observing it; to potentially involve them with the characters on a more “close-up” level. There are definitely some notable highs with the film’s technical elements, including a tremendous sounding and thrilling shootout between John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), their gang and a FBI squad led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The low points are some unfortunately grainy indoor shots and quite a few instances of dropping sound levels, mostly in the first half. Overall though, Mann’s particular digital approach is a fairly unique and interesting approach. The film’s main problem is that the supposed intention for the digital approach, as previously cited, is never achieved. This is actually not the fault of the technology, but of much of what the rest the film has to offer.

The exploration of character is almost astoundingly weak here, and a far cry from the strong examples present in the director’s Collateral, Heat, and The Insider. Depp and Bale, despite the former given the odd humorous line to flourish with in a snarky manner, give such reserved performances that the viewer is kept at a great distance from them. Such an approach might work in another film, but the struggle of these two men is supposed to be gripping and involving, and it simply isn’t. Marion Cotillard fares a bit better, but her character’s relationship with Dillinger, which any emotional interest the film is supposed to have rests on, feels quite half-baked. Performance-wise, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson is the highlight, if only for the entertainment value his complete bastard of a character provides. By the film’s conclusion, there’s no sense of an understanding of the people portrayed beyond a basic-surface portrayal; the characterisation is subtle to the point of practical non-existence. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ of events is delivered in an almost meticulous fashion, but the ‘why’ is virtually absent. The experience, despite some of the entertainment that it does provide, feels akin to watching hollow shells of people, rather than the real thing. After the last scene of the film, the viewer is told that the real Melvin Purvis eventually committed suicide, a revelation that practically blindsides you on the basis of the man’s portrayal here.

The film is based on Bryan Burrough’s book of the same name, which covers the entire 1930s crime wave. For this adaptation, elements not necessarily related to Dillinger, such as Purvis’ encounters with Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, and the formation of the FBI, are squeezed into the story in a rough fashion, and much of the facts have been re-written. Now, I do not have a problem with historical inaccuracies if they occur for the purpose of crafting an engaging character piece, with Bonnie and Clyde being a good example. With the film of Public Enemies, it just ends up seeming rather silly that so much was rewritten, when the handling of the characters involved here would have been just the same in a depiction of the true events; the conflicts would have likely been just as uninvolving.

Burroughs’ book, from my understanding, states that Dillinger’s status as “Public Enemy #1″ came about from a bank heist involving Baby Face Nelson that went horribly wrong, an event depicted in the film but in the third act. The film, however, has the man branded with that title by J. Edgar Hoover from the very start. What apparently makes Dillinger a bigger threat than his accomplices and others of his ilk is never made clear. His appeal is lost, and one would think that an understanding of that appeal is what the viewer is supposed to come away with.

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