by Mel Valentin
"Public Enemies," Michael Mannís ("Miami Vice," "Collateral," "Ali," "The Insider," "Heat," The Last of the Mohicans," "Manhunter," "The Keep") latest magnum opus (and the first since the underwhelming remake/reboot of his 80s television series, "Miami Vice"), brings him back to the urban-crime genre he first began exploring in the 1980s on television ("Crime Story," "Miami Vice") and on film ("Thief"). Stepping away from a contemporary setting for only the second time in his career as a filmmaker ("Crime Story" was set in the 1960s), Mann has crafted a frustratingly uneven crime-biopic of John Dillinger, the notorious 1930s gangster who died outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934 after a brief, bloody reign as Americaís ďNumber 1 Public Enemy.ĒBased on Bryan Burroughís non-fiction book, ďPublic Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,Ē Public Enemies follows John Dillingerís (Johnny Depp, another charismatic star) the last frenzied months of his short life (he died at the age of 31). Eight weeks after completing an 8 Ĺ year prison sentence for robbery, the flamboyant Dillinger and his gang, including John 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), stage daring daylight bank robberies across the American Midwest. Faced with public disapproval and congressional stonewalling, the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), appoints Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a highly successful, decorated federal agent (a ďG-ManĒ in the parlance of the time), to lead the anti-Dillinger task force from the FBIís office in Chicago. Almost immediately, the driven, obsessive Purvis begins his pursuit of Dillinger with singularly zealous determination.
"Lifestyles of the Criminally Rich and Infamous..."
Back in Chicago after another bank robbery spree, Dillinger meets and romances Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat-check girl who works at a local nightclub. Dillinger also crosses paths with the Italian mobsters led by Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) who control Chicagoís underworld. The mobsters initially welcome him as a celebrity but later, after Hoover successfully lobbies Congress to expand the scope and reach of the FBI, see Dillinger as a threat to their lucrative illegal business enterprises (e.g., betting, prostitution, gun-running, alcohol distribution, protection, etc.) that depend on the explicit and complicit cooperation of the local authorities. After a bank robbery brings in less than expected, an injured Dillinger and his gang hide out in the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. Tipped to Dillingerís whereabouts by a captured member of Dillingerís gang, Purvis goes on the offensive. In Public Enemies longest set piece, Dillinger escapes into the nighttime forest (other members of his gang arenít as lucky) and returns to Chicago under an assumed name. The lure of the big city, as well as Dillingerís trust in an old associate, Anna Sage (Branka Katic), prove to be his final undoing.
Mann depicts Dillinger as a sympathetic, romanticized, idealized; a status-conscious celebrity-gangster who hungers for stylish clothes and beautiful women. In Mann's revision of the Dillinger myth, Dillinger may be a sociopath (loosely defined), but he's a sociopath with a heart. He may like expensive suits and fast living, but he really yearns for an idyllic, labor-free life (somewhere in South America) with his one and only love, Billie Frechette. Unlike the violence-prone Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger refrains from casual violence (all the better to make him a sympathetic figure). He isnít an irredeemable thug, but, at worst, a man rushing headlong, eyes open, toward his inevitable fate, an early death at the hands of Purvis and his G-Men. Of course, refraining from violence has its limits. Once a bank robbery goes wrong, usually due to a hotheaded outburst of gunfire from another bank robber, Dillinger takes aim at anyone with a gun. gunfire from another bank robber, Dillinger takes aim at anyone with a gun.
In contrast, Purvis has no backstory, inner life, or character arc. We donít even learn why he joined the FBI (research reveals he practiced private law before and after joining the FBI in the 1930s). If heís married, we donít know about it. If he has children, we donít know about it. If he harbors any doubts about the brutal methods his special squad employs to obtain information, he doesnít flinch (with one exception, the beating of a woman by one of his men). Purvis is the throwback action hero defined by what he does and what he does defines him. If viewed through the prism of the Western genre (and whatís the urban-crime film if not the Western transposed to a modern, city setting), then Purvis is the classic lawman, initially driven by professional, not personal, goals. It's only later, when several of his men die in gun battles with Dillinger and his men that taking down Dillinger (presumably) becomes personal.
Mann took liberties with key facts. Both Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, in a cameo) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) died months after the FBI cornered and killed Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater. In probably the most egregious example of dramatic license, Mann has Dillinger wander completely unnoticed into the police squad dedicated to his capture or death on the day he dies. Walls crammed with photos and newspaper clippings of Dillingerís exploits and his gang, now mostly deceased, greet him on his walk. Mann probably goes too far, however, in rewriting the Little Bohemia Lodge incident to even out the losses on both sides. Purvis lost men that, but Dillinger didnít. Purvisí men also mistakenly shot three (killing two) Civilian Conservation workers they mistook for Dillingerís gang. Viewed at the time as a debacle for Purvis and Hooverís FBI, both men were under tremendous pressure to capture or kill Dillinger and his gang.Mann became enamored with using HD (High Definition) cameras on his last two films, "Miami Vice" and "Collateral." Both, however, were contemporary, not period, urban-crime films. The potential for distracting or alienating audiences by using HD cameras on "Public Enemies," however, didnít deter Mann. At times, especially during dialogue scenes where cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("Flash of Genius," "Deception," "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Wonder Boys," "The Insider," "Heat," "The Last of the Mohicans"), can meticulously light objects and faces, the effect approaches the hyper-real, a sense that the film frame is, in fact, a window, a window that gives the audience privileged access to events that occurred seventy-five years ago (all in glorious color, no less). At other times, especially during the daylight bank robberies and the nighttime shoot-outs, the HD camerasí deficiencies are more evident, especially in the motion blur that accompanies quick camera movements and characters running across the screen. Even then, though, the HD cameras help to create a sense of immediacy, of raw video footage taken in close proximity.
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originally posted: 07/01/09 05:03:19