Public Enemies (2009) marked Michael Mann’s fourth foray into American history with The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1999), and Ali (2001) being his previous efforts. The director got his start making documentaries and always been interested in achieving absolute authenticity in the depiction of the professions that his protagonists practice, be it safecracking in Thief (1981) or serial killer profiling in Manhunter (1986). Born and raised in Chicago, it is easy to see what drew Mann to the story of John Dillinger, a famous bank robber during the 1930s. He and his crew were the best of the best at the time and so, he certainly fits the kind of protagonist Mann is drawn to.
Public Enemies begins in 1933 during the golden age of bank robbery and Mann wastes no time getting into it as he opens the film with an exciting escape from an Ohio prison orchestrated by Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew. Soon after, we meet FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in action as he takes down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) with a hunting rifle from an impressive distance. In no time at all, Mann has established the film’s protagonist and antagonist. They are smart, super efficient men of action that are single-minded in their respective goals.
Unable to get funding and criticized by his superiors, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) needs high-profile busts and enlists Purvis to find and stop the country’s Public Enemy No. 1 – John Dillinger. The more notorious he becomes the more this angers not just the FBI but also the Chicago mob because his actions put extra heat on them. There is a nice scene where he meets with a mob representative who basically tells him that he is a dying breed. The money he makes knocking over one bank, they make in one day through illegal gambling.
Mann demonstrates that he is a master at orchestrating action sequences. They are cleanly photographed and edited so that there is no confusion. You can always tell what is going on and who everyone is instead of the kamikaze, headache-inducing editing and slapdash camerawork in films by the likes of Michael Bay and McG. The shoot-out at Dillinger’s hide-out in Little Bohemia is the film’s show-stopping action sequence much like the bank heist in Heat (1995) and the nightclub shoot-out in Collateral (2004). It is powerfully executed and full of tension and excitement as well as an impressive display of firepower with the deafening blasts of tommy guns and shotguns.
Public Enemies reunited Mann with key collaborators, chief among them cinematographer Dante Spinotti who has shot his most memorable films (including Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider). Mann has come under considerable criticism for making the move to digital cameras and even more so with Public Enemies because it is a period film and audiences are used to seeing them done on traditional film stock. However, it looks great with crisp, clear images, especially at night where there is an impressive depth of field. Certain scenes have a graininess to them inherent with digital cameras but, in this case, it gives a tangible, gritty texture that works. There are some truly beautiful shots in this film, like one in which a car carrying Dillinger and his crew hurtle down a road surrounded by a vast forest of trees that tower over them.
Mann is also reunited with composer Elliot Goldenthal who worked on Heat. Since The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mann has relied on soundtracks comprised mostly of disparate tracks from various sources. Being a period piece, obviously Public Enemies really doesn’t lend itself to that kind of a soundtrack and Goldenthal expertly augments the drama that unfolds in various scenes, creating one of the best scores in a Mann film to date.
The attention to period detail is fantastic with classic trains, cars, and classic gangster iconography like tommy guns, fedoras and trenchcoats permeating the film. Mann really immerses us in the time period but not in a way that calls undo attention to itself. It’s just there in the background of every scene with vintage period architecture. Ever the perfectionist, Mann shot on location, often at the actual locations that Dillinger and his gang frequented. Whether you are consciously aware of this or not, the film just oozes authenticity.
Dillinger certainly enjoys the fruits of his labor but is always planning his next job. He follows his own personal code: he doesn’t kill unless absolutely necessary and doesn’t think about the future, living only in the present because he could easily end up in jail or dead. He is also very conscious of how he’s perceived by the public, enjoying the notoriety his exploits create. Johnny Depp portrays him as a very confident guy who is always in control. There is often this mischievous glint in his eye like he’s in on a private joke. Depp plays Dillinger with a lot of charm, like when he addresses the media while being booked in an Indiana jail. He knows how to work the crowd and the charismatic actor is excellent in this scene. However, Public Enemies is not afraid to point out that Dillinger is no hero. The man has no problem with killing someone if they got in his way but the film goes to great lengths to point out that he did so only when there was no other option. Dillinger was clearly a man who didn’t believe in wasting time, much like Frank, the safecracker in Thief. Depp inhabits the role with his customary dedication, adopting a specific voice, accent and effortless delivery of period lingo that sounds natural and genuine.
Christian Bale is quite good as the very determined Purvis. While Mann doesn’t create the balance of cop vs. robber as he did in Heat, Bale has a significant amount of screen-time in the film. Like other law enforcement figures in Mann’s films, Purvis uses state-of-the-art technology, for the time, to track Dillinger and his crew. As determined as Purvis is, Mann allows some humanity to seep in, like when he stops the brutal interrogation of Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and personally helps her get cleaned up. It is this small moment that adds a welcome layer to his character.
There are all kinds of parallels between Public Enemies and Heat. In both films we are meant to sympathize with the bank robber. Also, the two leads only meet face-to-face in one scene. There is a climactic gun-battle where both sides take on significant casualties that alter the conclusion of the story. And, like McCauley in Heat, there is an inevitability to Dillinger’s life; that he will run out of time and luck; that Purvis and the FBI will close the net around him. That being said, Public Enemies is not a carbon copy of Heat. Personality-wise, Dillinger and McCauley are very different people with the former being a risk-taker and the latter being overly cautious. The same goes for the lawmen. Purvis is not the larger-than-life extrovert that Hanna is, but rather a no-nonsense man who gets the job done and that’s it. There’s even a loose cannon in the form of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) who is to Public Enemies what Waingro was to Heat. A psychopath that the bank robbers initially ally themselves with but end up cutting loose when he proves to be too unstable. Structurally, both films couldn’t be different as Mann continues to experiment with narrative structure in a fascinating way. This isn’t your typical, cookie-cutter A to B to C plotting, which may frustrate some (see Ali or Miami Vice) but if you the patience and can get into it, watching Public Enemies is a very rewarding experience.