To a filmmaker, the outlaw provides an enticing screen proposition; equal parts hero & villain, real & mythic, with plenty of room for glamour, romance, and of course, violence. It’s hard to consider Michael Mann’s latest movie without considering the rich history of gangsters, film, and gangsters on film, and while it ostensibly presents itself as a biopic, it is both so much less, and so much more.
That, by the way, is a good thing.
Chronicling the heyday and eventual downfall of legendary bank robber John Dillinger, Public Enemies is a sumptuous yet quiet epic, with a larger-than-life character at its centre. Dillinger is the seminal gentleman bank robber. A poor boy who makes it big, a robin-hood figure who pulls off heist after flamboyant heist until his inevitable sticky end. If his story seems familiar — almost cliche — it’s only because it has gone on to be the template of every crime thriller since.
It’s apparent that Michael Mann knows this, and embraces it, for the film actually tames down and omits several of Dillinger’s more novel and outrageous escapades (for instance, he once robbed a bank by pretending to shoot a movie there, complete with camera & crew). This is a bold, and initially confusing choice, but it does make sense; Mann seems to want to show us the quintessential gangster tale, stripped of its eccentricities, and if you go in with that knowledge — not expecting Mann to reinvent the wheel — then you will be better served.
But reinventing the wheel is also an agenda of the film. Since Collateral, Mann has turned to shooting his films digitally, and Public Enemies is no exception. It’s quite a shock to see 1933, depicted in all its period detail, in a medium that we’re used to seeing today’s news footage in. Mann does not, unlike other filmmakers, try to make it look like celluloid. Public Enemies looks like video, and while this is sometimes to its detriment, it is, for the most part, one of the shining triumphs of the film.
We’re used to seeing any era before the advent of video depicted in very specific ways. The sixties is all bright colour and psychedelia. World War 2 is depicted like war documentaries, in stark military greens and browns. And so far the 1930s has always reflected the contrasting glamour & poverty of the era through sepia-toned, formal compositions that try to mimic the noir aesthetic of movies that were made during that time.
Now imagine that world and all its contents as viewed through a modern, state-of-the-art digital camera. It’s disconcerting at first — even off-putting — but once the initial shock wears off the world starts to come alive. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve never felt that a bygone era was as real as the world depicted in Public Enemies. It’s no longer an artifact, an artistic rendering. This almost looks like a documentary, as if a camera crew had been sent into the past from today. It’s an unnerving experience, when it’s done right; the world of the 1930s seems a lot stranger and just plain weirder that it does when you watch it on heavily-processed celluloid.
That’s not to say that the digital cinematography is a complete success. Several examples of ghosted imagery and camera noise mar otherwise well-shot sequences, faults I would expect from my home video camera, and not a world-class Hollywood movie crew.
As an unexpected byproduct of this video look, the lushness of Elliot Goldenthal’s score when it swells up now and then does jar a little. The film gels much better with certain period-specific songs than a pristine orchestral score. It’s a paradox, but that’s what you get when you experiment.
It is also very much a film besotted by its central character. John Dillinger is an almost preposterous creation, always talking in grand proclamations and wry one liners, a movie star spouting movie lines in a very real world. Johnny Depp is more than up to the task of making that work, and even if the rest of the movie sucked I would recommend seeing it only for him.
It’s a good thing there’s more to this film than his performance, but the galaxy of talent that surrounds him are a bit underdeveloped, even two-dimensional. Dillinger’s nemesis is played by Christian Bale, but anybody expecting this to be a showdown of two stars is sure to come away disappointed. There’s a lot of good work going on, even in the smallest of cameos, but it all falls to the wayside. I, for one, would have liked a longer cut which fleshed out some of the side characters, because there are several stories to be told.
Bale’s Neal Purvis, for instance, is the first of his kind, an agent of the then-fledgling FBI who does things the way we might consider normal for the FBI to do now, such as methodical surveillance and careful stakeouts of buildings. But all of this was new, unknown stuff in 1933, and Purvis is a man in charge of a department that hasn’t quite grasped the revolutionary methods he would like to see them employ. There’s a whole other movie to be made about the changes in crime-solving techniques.
There are a hundred little things like this, tantalising glimpses at artistic connections that flit by just before they can be fully developed. It’s a far from perfect movie, with rough edges in the writing, camerawork & direction, but I can hardly fault the ambition of the piece. It’s nowhere as sublime as Collateral, but it does have charm.
Public Enemies may be a biopic, but of whom? Dillinger? Hardly. But it can be seen as a rumination on the art of the gangster film itself, at once being a textbook example of the genre, as well as forging new ground through its fresh technical presentation, and its commentary on the transitive nature of Dillinger’s world.
This is, in the end, a film about transitions. From film to digital. From the celebration of men to the cult of celebrity. From the world of gentlemen bank robbers to stodgy back rooms fat with gambling rackets. From lone cowboy lawmen to procedural, agency-led crime solving.
It is a call to end the way we look at things, as we have for over a century through the chemical filters of celluloid; the shorthand of period films being presented in a specific, sepia-tinted way. Watching Public Enemies hits home for us, the cinema viewers of 2009, who have never seen a real 1930s outlaw, that the way things were isn’t quite how they make it look in the movies.