Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup
Rating: 4 stars (our of five)
Public Enemies is a well-drawn period drama, a look at America’s historic love affair with the colorful gangsters of the Depression era without celebrating them. Johnny Depp, a master at playing outsiders, gives us a John Dillinger who’s both a driven, aggressive man and one who’s realizing that he has no future.
Director Michael Mann opens the film with an audacious jailbreak that quickly establishes the world of the film. Dillinger is decisive, bold, violent — but he’s contrasted with a crook who lacks discipline and shows wanton cruelty. We don’t get a hero in Dillinger, but he’s a cut above the likes of Baby Face Nelson, who later in the film is willing to mow down bystanders and cops for no good reason.
Depp gives us a main character that we’re willing to watch and even root for (though history had written Dillinger’s fate before the screenwriters were born), without making him a hero, or soft-pedaling the man’s violent side. One viewer might feel sorry for Dillinger in the end, and another might think he deserved exactly what he got. Hell, you might think both.
That complexity is most visible when Dillinger selects, with no room for disagreement, a girlfriend: Marion Cotillard, who often speaks her lines really fast, as though her halfway decent American accent only lasts for three seconds at a time. Dillinger is both charming and dangerous. He’s truly, movingly dedicated to Cotillard’s Billie Fretchette, but he also refuses to have things any way but his. It’s a complex relationship, a complex role, and it’s fortunate that he has an actress as good as Cotillard to work with.
The film most directly contrasts Depp with Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, the G-man whose task force pursued and eventually cornered the elusive gangster. The film takes pains to paint both men as methodical and restrained, each in a world where passions run hotter and ethical standards are lower. Purvis faces the challenge of getting his job done — J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI prides itself on methodical modern investigators, not the rough-and-tumble cops who can actually bring in a man like Dillinger — and doing it in a way that he can live with. He’s interesting as he fulfills that role in the story, and the film does not further amp up a cheesy mano a mano staredown between the two.
Instead, the two men are set in their contexts within the changing face of crime. Flamboyant bank robbers like Dillinger are on the way out as nationwide “syndicates” realize they can make more money on, say, sports betting than with front-page crime sprees. Such institutional gangsters don’t want Dillingers in their world. At the same time, law enforcement is becoming more effective, with both laws and technological tools making it easier to close a net around the robbers. The certainty with which we see, in this way and others, that there’s no future for a man like Dillinger is one of the things that makes the film more than a story of cops and robbers.
In balancing character with context and history, the film is more successful than Clint Eastwood’s recent period piece, The Changeling, perhaps because it’s better focused on a general theme of outsiders in a changing and unreliable world. (It’s notable that the film is called “Public Enemies,” plural. Sure, Cagney claimed the singular a lifetime ago, but it also shifts focus from the central character to his millieu.) The film works both as “serious art” and mass-appeal entertainment, and deserves to Tommy gun the crap outta those dumb robots infesting mulitplexes nationwide.