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.