Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard

During my first summer in Chicago I went to go see Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle at the Biograph theater on Lincoln. At the time I was completely unaware that it was the famous theater where the Lady in Red betrayed John Dillinger to the feds. When I found out I was amazed and a little disappointed  that I didn't go see a more appropriate film at such a location. When I was growing up my Grandma Collins would tell me stories about the early days of the FBI and Dillinger was certainly mentioned. 

Dillinger was a gangster and folk hero and the site of his death is now a recognized National Historic site.  He was a criminal, killer, and robber and yet he was adored. He was one of many gangsters that despite their exploits were celebrated and obviously still have a draw today. I'm not sure I understand why but I'm certainly not immune to it. 

Michael Mann's film, Public Enemies explores the public fascination with the gangsters of days gone by.  The film is set in when those days are waning and the public perception of these gangsters is going from adoration to resentment. At the open of the film John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, is an exciting and daring outlaw stealing from banks but not from the pockets of the customers. His exploits helped galvanize the Federal Bureau of Investigation to become a force against crime. In the film the task of taking down Dillinger is given to Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale. 

The conflict between the ways of the gangsters and the feds is played out between Dillinger and Purvis, but it is not personal. It comes down to Purvis's duty and Dillinger's nature. Dillinger loves the thrill of the gangster life and will keep on going until he can't go any longer.  He spent ten years of his life in prison and now that he is out he wants to enjoy it all. Purvis is a dedicated law man but what it will take to bring Dillinger down does not come natural to him. He is over his head because it is not in his nature to be cruel. The FBI is young and Dillinger is an embarrassment to director J. Edgar Hoover, played in this film by Billy Crudup. The heat comes down on Purivs and he is forced to betray his conscience to stop Dillinger. He is forced to resort to brutal and cold tactics to bring him down.

Through out the film it becomes clear to Dillinger that he is a dying breed. in the beginning he has the support of the public and he thrives on it. He tells an associate that he won't do a kidnapping because the public doesn't like it, they are fine with bank robbing. When they start to... well get bored of him he loses that support. At first he is able to outsmart and out run the local and state police officers but when the FBI  starts to trail him,with all their new techniques and technology, he is out of his league. Finally, even the criminals begin to leave his side. At first they love John Dillinger but when they find that he is bad for the new and lucrative ways to make money they give him the cold shoulder. 

Michael Mann seems to be very interested in exploring ideas through his stories and his characters. Through out this review I realize that I have been fascinated with the ideas that he explored in this film. They are incredibly interesting but that doesn't necessarily make the characters engaging. Mann seems to be interested in Dillinger as an idea not so much as a person. He uses this film to wonder what it would have been like to be Dillinger but doesn't quite get into his shoes. It's all exploration without a great realization. As a result I felt the same way about the character. This isn't a bad thing but as an audience member it doesn't really invite you to invest in the characters. 

Would I have preferred Michael Mann to explore the characters more than his ideas and themes? No, I really enjoyed this film. I think if he wanted us to embrace the character then we would have cheered him on during his crimes. I don't think Mann wanted the audience to enjoy what Dillinger did but wanted to explore why his life of crime is so fascinating. The gun shots wounds in this film are some what disturbing and I appreciated that touch. All the fun that Dillinger was having was negated by bloody wounds and dire consequences. 

Still, I'm left wondering why we enjoy our outlaws so much in this country. We don't anymore but there was a time in which we celebrated those who fought against authority. Maybe there is something inherently American about wanting to buck against the establishment, we were born in rebellion after all. We love our outlaws in this country and the best of them become folk heroes. I'm not sure of the reason but I do know that whenever I walk pass the Biograph theater I always think about John Dillinger. 


  1. I did not like the film, yet I cannot understand why. On one hand it seemed too long and slow yet on the other it felt like it tried to fit too much story into it. I went in interesting in Dillinger and I felt I left with a cliche. Maybe that is because the cliches are based on this man, I don't know...but I felt I knew what would happen before it happened.

    I wish it would have shown more of the earlier days and more of the reactions of regular folks toward a man who was sticking it to the banks that were giving them so much heartache during the Depression. Instead we are told he is beloved and good at what he does, given a couple of short example that I didn't feel got the point across then it went straight into the fall of the man.

    I was let down by the movie.

    and I must say, its time to retire the shaky cam.

    -Dan Sturgeon

  2. btw, they become folk heroes because these are people that are sticking it to the man. During the depression it was the banks that lost the people's money and took away their home (of course other issues caused these things but to the people the bank was the one that DID IT). It also didn't hurt if the gangster was good looking (like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde).

    p.s. have you seen Ned Kelly?