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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Public Enemies (review)

Criminal Intimacy

I’ve never been the kind of cineaste who cares much about the technical side of cinema: aspect ratios and film stocks and whether something was shot in 35mm or 70mm or whatever. I just don’t care. Maybe that makes me no kind of cineaste at all, and just a poor pathetic mere girl who doesn’t really understand movies the way they’re supposed to be understood. All I know is that story and character have tended to be way more important to me than what kind of camera the cinematographer used.
That said, I’m wildly intrigued by Public Enemies even though I readily concede that character development is all but nonexistent, and that it leaves me more wanting to know who notorious bank robber John Dillinger was than I did before I went into the film. Backstory? Forget it. Motivations? Never mind. This is a movie that exists completely in its own moment — not in the past, not in the future. (And maybe that says the most important thing there is to say about Dillinger.) Very much like Michael Mann’s previous film, 2006’s Miami Vice, Public Enemies drops us right into the middle of one of the key moments of American law and disorder… and it leaves us to float, if we can, without anything to hang on to except what flotsam and jetsam we can find around us.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But it is an intellectual thing, which means it’s not the kind of thing that American audiences tend to want from a movie. This isn’t a “let’s go have a good time at the multiplex and forget our woes” kind of movie. It’s a “I really want to think about what I’m watching” kind of movie. Which probably means it’s doomed, from a box-office perspective.

Deep into Public Enemies the little voice in the back of my movie-critic head was saying, Okay, sure, it’s full of raw grace but it’s kinda emotionally cold… and so why am I so caught up in it anyway? And at the same time I found myself thinking, My god, the resolution of the image is extraordinary: I can see every pore of Christian Bale’s face and every whisker on Johnny Depp’s cheek. I found myself actually pondering — even while I was watching the completely riveting and charismatic Johnny Depp onscreen! — that this had to have been shot in some sort of high-def video to have achieved such an unaffected physicality. And indeed, that is the case: this movie was not shot on film, and so it does not have anything like the shadowy, dreamlike quality film often has. Public Enemies is intimate in an animal sense, getting us on top of Depp’s (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) Dillinger and Bale’s (Terminator Salvation, The Dark Knight) proto FBI agent Melvin Purvis without letting us get to know them. It’s like having sex with a total stranger: it’s thrilling and scary and maybe not something you’d actually do in real life. But as an experience… whoa.

I might be harder on the film if I didn’t think this was a deliberate choice by Mann (Collateral, The Insider) — who also wrote the screenplay, with Ronan Bennett (The Hamburg Cell) and Ann Biderman, based on the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. But it’s pretty clear, by the end of the film, when — no spoilers! — we see Dillinger at the movies himself, at a showing of the gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama [Amazon U.S./Region 1], starring Clark Gable and William Powell and Myrna Loy. Mann is clearly announcing, by how he frames this sequence, that he has deliberately avoided any sense that he wishes us to take anything histrionic or exaggerated from his take on a gangster. Mann sees nothing noble in either Dillinger or Purvis — who fights his own strange battles at the nascent FBI — or in Marion Cotillard’s (La vie en rose) Billie, the gangster’s moll who is equally unelaborated upon.

Nothing at all, in fact, in Public Enemies is glamorized or glorified — even Depp’s unavoidable sexiness is, well, not exactly muted but not at all celebrated. Depp may be constantly one-upping himself from film to film, but here that means undercutting his screen charisma to leave us pondering the strange dichotomy of famous criminals: we simultaneously appreciate how Dillinger could have been irresistible to the 1930s public while also seeing the sham that his fame was.

Perhaps the most intellectually rousing aspect of Public Enemies is how modern it feels. The agents of the “Bureau of Investigation” — which wasn’t yet the FBI — may have no radios and no cell phones with which to communicate in the field, but the eavesdropping technology they have to listen in on phone calls is totally high-tech geek… for the 1930s. The notion that the entrepreneurial Dillinger was put out of business not just by increasingly organized cops but by increasingly organized crime feels like an indictment of the 20th century on the whole.

We don’t know Dillinger by the end, but we do get him. Maybe that’s the most modern thing of all about this frustrating and fascinating film.

MPAA: rated R for gangster violence and some language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • JoshDM

    Is it wrong that I thought this was going to be a review of Public Enemies?

  • doa766

    even if the movie was shot on HD video, regular theater screens are not in high defenition

    HD video has a very different look but there’s no increase of resolution on a theater screen

    actually there’s a decrease, since HD cameras can shot video on 1K or 2K resolution and celuloid is supposed to have between 4K and 5K resolution, even if there’s no direct translation because it’s an analog system, that’s what experts say

    that makes these HD movies (zodiac, benjamin button, etc) a strange case because on blu ray or any high def format movies shot on film decades ago like Casablanca or Gone with the wind ironically will have a much better resolution than movies shot on HD video on the last few years since film it’s always the same

    maybe in a few years HD cameras will be able to shoot on 4K matching the film quality but for now they’re far from it

  • Mathias

    The fact that it’s emotionally cold and doesn’t get you insides the character’s head always means that i’m not gonna like it. It’s the same reason whi i didn’t like Miami Vice.

    But i’m hoping against hope that I enjoy PE.

  • MaryAnn

    If you didn’t like *Miami Vice,* you’re probably not going to like this.

  • Mathias

    Which would be a shame, ‘cuz Collateral is one of my all time fave films. And that was not written by Mann. For some reason, Mann doesn’t have the writing ability to really make you care about his characters. Not the way that Stuart Beattie did with Collateral.

  • Mathias

    Yeah, you were right MaryAnn, I’m disappointed.
    Public Enemies just doesn’t deliver the emotional impact i was hoping for. It is cold and univolving but it’s a testament to Depp that the ending still left me sad.


  • MaryAnn (Wed Jul 01 09, 1:44AM):

    If you didn’t like Miami Vice, you’re probably not going to like this.

    Public Enemies isn’t near as good as Miami Vice… it felt like a cheap imitation of Heat (another vastly superior Mann film) without the amazing character beats.

    It was, however, infinitely more engaging than some other recent films — plus my brother-in-law was an extra in the courtroom scene. My wife went nuts when she saw him.

  • MBI

    I didn’t like “Miami Vice,” and I REALLY didn’t like this one. “Miami Vice” had at least good action scenes (and digital video doesn’t work in period pieces AT ALL). This movie just had no momentum, no characterization, and no justification at all for its leaden gravitas. “Nothing at all, in fact, in Public Enemies is glamorized or glorified,” you write, and that’s true. Where we differ is that I think that draining the glamour and the fun out of the Dillinger story is a worthless goal. This movie is fucking boring. “Goodfellas” says a billion times more to say than “Public Enemies,” and it doesn’t put me to sleep when it says it.

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