Directed by: Michael Mann (Miami Vice)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Stephen Dorf
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a strangely distant, quasi-demythification of the tale of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) that keeps threatening to turn into a truly fine movie without ever quite pulling it off. It’s an odd mix of obsessive historical accuracy and a lack thereof (the funereal arrangement of “Bye Bye Blackbird” that Diana Krall sings in the film is so not 1933). It’s a movie that wants to debunk the legend and have it, too. In short, it’s a film that finally comes across like it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be—even after wandering around for 140 minutes trying to figure it out.
Part of the problem may stem from the fact that the Dillinger story is simply so well known. In fact, I suspect that the less you know about old “Public Enemy Number One,” the more you’re apt to enjoy Mann’s film. The more you know, the more it starts to feel like Mann is working from a checklist of points that have to be covered—something that increases the likelihood that somewhere around the two-hour mark you’ll start wishing that Dillinger would go see Manhattan Melodrama (1934) already. At the same time, the less historically savvy are apt to not even get some of Mann’s legend corrections—like the fact that the notorious “lady in red” was actually the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt,” a phrase that lacks the sexier punch of the newspaper-ese of “lady in red.”
Even so, the story of Dillinger—and his crossover with other mythologized gangsters of the early 1930s, such as Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, Fighting), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi, Cold Mountain) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, Snatch)—is sufficiently intriguing to keep the film interesting. Also, delving into the “good guy” side, by placing nearly as much attention on Melvin Purvis and the rise of the FBI, sets the film apart from most gangster yarns, since the forces of law and order tend to get short shrift in such tales. That addition may not be entirely in the film’s favor dramatically, since, let’s face it, we’re here for the blazing tommy guns and the iconic gangsters—not the cops, who tend to be less interesting.
Thematically, however, the Purvis material is where Mann scores his best points. His depiction of the largely futile PR efforts of the FBI to turn their agents—notably Purvis—into good-guy versions of the icons the gangsters so effortlessly became is the movie’s most notable and relevant addition to the genre. That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean the movie has the wit to actually explore the concept, but that’s partly because the film just has too much in it, resulting in too much being sketched-in. You’re in trouble when your seriously intended portrayal of Baby Face Nelson is less persuasive and rounded than the comedic picture of the same character in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
A bigger—perhaps the biggest—drawback to Public Enemies lies in its inability to make the viewer really care very much about any of the characters. Neither Dillinger nor Purvis are presented as particularly likable. Dillinger has a slight edge in that he gets a few clever lines and is played by the inherently likable and compelling Johnny Depp, but there’s still not much there. There’s even less to Purvis, and the film’s single attempt to humanize him comes too late in the proceedings to alter that. This is the problem with trying to view these larger-than-life characters dispassionately: You end up with a dispassionate movie.
Mann’s apparent inability to decide just how much of the myth’s baggage he wants to slough off is ultimately counterproductive to a striking degree. There’s simply no way to avoid wanting to guess at Dillinger’s reaction to the events depicted in the film Manhattan Melodrama, which he saw just prior to meeting his fate in 1934. Did he see himself in the gangster story? Did he see his own fate, or at least a romanticized version of it? Did he buy into that romanticized image? Mann can’t resist guessing, which pushes us back into myth, but he also bizarrely and deliberately omits the most famous and resonant line from Manhattan Melodrama in what he shows of the film: “If I can’t live the way I want, at least let me die when I want.” It’s as if Mann is trying to soft-pedal the myth, but can’t bring himself to quite let it go, which actually sums up the whole approach to Public Enemies. Rated R for gangster violence and some language.