An adaptation of the non-fiction book, Public Enemies Americas Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies is the new film directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. It is set in the midst the bleak period of the great depression in America, a time usually recognised by a worldwide economic slump and glamorised criminals with long, hanging coats, overtly padded suits, fedora hats and a tommy gun — usually found on Turner Classic Movies or MGM.
Public Enemies is about John Dillinger played by a very much in-character Johnny Depp who oozes influence and silent control. Dillinger, with his Robin Hood antics of robbing banks during the great depression (he stole only the money of the state, and not the people, although the two are definitely connected on logical grounds), was propelled as Public Enemy Number One by J. Edgar Hoover, played with a big neckline and clipped Washington accent by Billy Crudup, who furnishes one of the best performances in the film. Hoover, when Dillinger thrusts into his federal jurisdiction, recruits Melvin Purvis (the usually withdrawn and detached Christian Bale) an FBI agent who doggedly went after Dillinger and others (Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson to name just two). Hoover's idea of clean-cut FBI agents and the exploitation of outlaws as celebrities to elevate the Bureau into the national police force it now is, is one of the many strands of subdued narrative embedded into the film.
Like most of Michael Mann's recent work (excluding Miami Vice), Public Enemies is a thoroughly researched gem which from the word go becomes a predictable masterpiece, with striking technical and artistic detail.
If critics are to be believed, Michael Mann's Public Enemies is a masterpiece of gangster cinema. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes “Public Enemies is a grave and beautiful work of art. What makes the movie pleasurable is the vigor with which it restages our familiar romance with period criminals, a perennial affair. But what also makes it more than the sum of its spectacular shootouts is the ambivalence about this romance that seeps into the filmmaking, steadily darkening the skies and draining the story of easy thrills.”
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times simply states at the beginning of his review that “Here is a film that shrugs off the way we depend on myth to sentimentalize our outlaws. There is no interest here about John Dillinger's childhood, his psychology, his sexuality, his famous charm, his Robin Hood legend.”
In a scene in the beginning, Dillinger while raiding a bank tells the teller “we're here for the bank's money, not yours. Put it away.” This image of Dillinger is something he subconsciously forces himself to keep all through the film. And it was an essentiality, since the American public's image and sympathy for the banks had nosedived during the great depression; Dillinger's persona became something of a heroic outlaw.
Depp, as I mentioned earlier, extrudes the subtleties of a classic Hollywood film star. Whether in and out of pirate drab, an imprint most of the commercial public will know him for even after his lifetime, he is an admirable performer who is familiar with the depth of his character. Depp plays Dillinger not as a faÃ§ade but as a fact.
The same can be said about the relationship between Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette and Dillinger, which guttles a sizeable amount of screen-time. Mann also spins their liaison around conformity.
As Ebert expertly points out later in his review, “He (Mann) sees him and her. Not them. They are never a couple. They are their needs. She needs to be protected, because she is so vulnerable. He needs someone to protect, in order to affirm his invincibility”
Michael Mann (with a screenplay by him, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) has created a grand cinematic experience (the film opens with a jail br eak that sets the tone for its 133-minute duration), a formidable and intelligent tapestry of events woven in an almost factual depiction of the era.
But grand as it is, it is not great. Then again, not every film is.
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane and Channing Tatum, Public Enemies is rated R for bloody gangster violence, strong language and sexual situations. Nothing too out of the ordinary when we're on gangster turf.
Okay, so Public Enemies has a lot going for it. Spectacular HD cinematography by Dante Spinotti, an assembly of rousing, in-character performances by Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup and Johnny Depp (Christian Bale, with his modulating tone and accent does an obligatory job) and a brilliant screen-story by Michael Mann (who also directs), Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, derived from the non-fiction book Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough.
A typical product of Michael Mann has these few qualities embedded into them convincing depiction of the events (if albeit a little edited to give way for a bit of artistic storytelling) in an intelligent and multi-layered screenplay that is almost always propelled by the deeds of the lead characters, rather than the other way around. His background details stay in the background, and its authenticity is reflected in almost every scene Mann makes.
Let me elaborate by quoting a fellow film critic Roger Ebert, writing about Public Enemies, says, “Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn't indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It's just there.”
Like the art direction, the characters are also just there. And as the film progresses we get to know them better, scene by scene. Public Enemies is a spectacle in the gangster genre. — Farheen Jawaid