Public Enemies

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Review by Hugh Lilly

Michael Mann’s new film is the fifth time the story of John Dillinger will be played out on the silver screen. The first was in 1947 and starred Lawrence Tierney; the second was Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead, in 1969, which starred Anita Pallenberg and used documentary newsreel footage of the infamous bank robber.

The third—and best to date—was John Milius’ Dillinger, in 1973, with Warren Oates as a scruffy backwater country hick Dillinger. Lewis Teague’s mostly forgotten 1979 film The Lady In Red looks at the story from the point of view of Dillinger’s love interest.

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Now, in 2009, Michael Mann—director of Collateral, Heat and The Insider, and creator of one of the best TV series of the ’80s, Miami Vice—has adapted Bryan Burrough’s book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43,” for the screen, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard.

Depp is superb in the title role, smirking and conniving his way in and out of jails, handcuffs, and the loving arms of various women. Dillinger, in between bank robberies, spies Billie Frenchette (Cotillard) at a restaurant one night. He falls for her instantly, and she asks him to dance, while Diana Krall sings “Bye Bye Blackbird” onstage behind them. Over the next few months, Dillinger tries to outrun and outwit the law, and keep Billie safe. He manages to rob a few more banks and loses a few men along the way, all the while eluding the watchful eye of G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) of J. Edgar Hoover’s then-nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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Public Enemies is shot in high definition—like both Collateral and the Miami Vice film before it—and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is absolutely a sight to behold. Critics have intimated that Spinotti and Mann are attempting to change the way cinema looks, and Public Enemies may prove in time to be the catalyst for the uptake of HD by a number of other (prominent) filmmakers. Although the look of the film may be initially disconcerting, it’s not hard to appreciate the benefits afforded by small handheld cameras: close-ups are employed in nearly every scene—to terrific narrative effect.

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While the costumes and set design are flawless, the film is let down mostly by the plot, and on the writers’ (Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) insistence on trying to cram too much into the film. The result is a series of fragments, a collection of vignettes wherein the actors try their best to convey fleshed-out characters but—because there is a need to move the story along as quickly as possible—don’t quite have time. Also—and perhaps ironically—at 139 minutes, the film seems too long, by at least a fifth.

There are a number of historical inaccuracies in the film, such as the order in which certain of Dillinger’s gang are killed—Public Enemies notably opens with a jailbreak and the death of Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd; in Milius’ film Floyd doesn’t die til near the end of the story. These digressions are minor in the scheme of things, though.

The performances are, for the most part, spectacular, except for Bale who, alas, overacts—all constantly-furrowed brow and “serious actor voice”. Though he thankfully doesn’t employ his gravelly ‘Dark Knight voice,’ he does attempt a South Carolina drawl, with mostly horrible results.

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The soundtrack is somewhat of a mixed bag, ranging from well-employed jazz and swing (Billie Holliday’s “Am I Blue?”) to contemporary blues (Otis Taylor’s “Ten Million Slaves” opens the film to great effect) to Elliot Goldenthal’s brief, mostly syrupy, sentimental score, which unsubtly pipes up only at precise moments to elicit emotion from the audience.

The film’s greatest achievement is its atmosphere and attention to detail: Mann has created a completely watertight world for his characters, and the viewer is completely drawn in. Even with its flaws, Public Enemies, while necessarily not as explosive, perhaps, as his other work, is an interesting addition to the work of a director who is continually innovative and willing to step slightly out of the mainstream.

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Public Enemies opens on Thursday.

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