I’ve seldom seen a modern film subjected to the kind of visual deconstruction that greeted Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, at least upon its initial release; it was hard to find anyone remotely film-savvy who didn’t have an opinion on the way in which Mann chose to shoot his biographical portrait of the final months of famed Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. There’s nothing surprising about the look of the film within the Mann canon—it falls directly within the style he’s been steadily developing throughout the decade (particularly in his last two pictures, Collateral and Miami Vice). He shoots in tight and up close, artfully arranges the compositions within his wide 2.35:1 frames (few filmmakers play as impressively with foreground and background), and shoots much of his action on loose, handheld, high-def digital video.There’s no question that the doc-style camerawork lends a you-are-there immediacy to the action on screen—it’s just that it is, at first, somewhat disorienting to see a period story shot in such a distinctly contemporary style, and this appears to be the hang-up of the film’s critics. But must every period film shoot exclusively in the style of the films from that time? And if so, why was I the only one singing Soderbergh’s praises when he shot The Good German like a 1940s movie?
Mann’s story begins in 1933 with a daring jailbreak that puts folk hero bank man John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) back out on the streets. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (the terrific Billy Crudup), attempting to up the agency’s profile, makes Dillinger “public enemy number one” and taps agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who tracked and killed Pretty Boy Floyd, to head up the search for Dillinger. Meanwhile, Dillinger takes up with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), an exotic beauty who he seems to pick up on a whim before pledging himself to her for life.
The screenplay (by Ronan Bennett, Mann, and Ann Biderman) has its pluses and minuses. The dialogue is terse and tough as nails; I like how Dillinger tells a bank manager, “You can be a dead hero or a live coward—get it open,” or tells an associate, “I’m asking you once, and I just did.” The film is also admirably short on bullshit psychology—we don’t see Dillinger as a child or a younger man, are given no clues as to why he is the way that he is. That refusal to engage in Freudian shorthand, to play by the rules that seem to govern our idea of what biographical film is and how it works, may be part of the reason that Public Enemies had trouble connecting with some audiences—just as Mann’s Ali did back in 2001.
Neither of these films have the epic scope, slick polish, and narrative discipline we’ve come to expect from biographical drama. But he’s doing something that’s perhaps more interesting. He’s using this particular kind of filmmaking—handheld camera, limited timeframe, non-expositional (and non-presentational) dialogue and scene structure—to create a fly-on-the-wall historical pictures, faux-vérité snapshots instead of all-encompassing portraits (which are basically impossible to do in two hours anyway).
Of course, this kind of elliptical storytelling has its drawbacks. Dillinger’s accomplices never really emerge as particularly memorable or compelling characters (and, for that matter, neither do Purvis’s). In spite of a real narrative thrust, the film drags more than you’d think; it runs a too-slack 140 minutes and meanders from scene to scene, especially in the second act. And in general, for whatever reason, it never quite clicks together the way Mann’s best films do; ultimately, when all’s said and done, it’s a collection of very good scenes.
But they are, in fact, very good scenes. There’s a bit early on where Dillinger comes to Billie’s coat check job and sweeps her away, sweet-talking her while giving the business to a priggish customer, and it’s just plain dynamite. A jailbreak scene around the midway mark is messy, jittery, unpolished, and ruthlessly effective (given an uncompromising tightness by Mann’s decision to eschew the use of score there), and it is followed immediately by a giddily well-executed beat that wrings suspense from a leisurely stoplight. The marvelous sequence in which Dillinger takes a leisurely stroll around the Chicago Police Department (taking care to check out their “Dillinger Bureau”) would stretch the film’s credibility, if it weren’t based in fact. A shoot-out between federal agents and Dillinger’s accomplices at a remote lodge has a stark, frenzied urgency, amplified by the unforgiving darkness and hot muzzle flashes (the pulpy digital photography has an almost sensuous quality here), to say nothing of the sharp, tinny gunshots—the entire sequence feels captured, not choreographed, and it’s electrifying. And the climax at the Biograph Theater is just about perfect, bringing this unconventional biopic to an arrestingly satisfying conclusion.
Mann ultimately doesn’t quite bring the whole thing off, and that’s a shame; with a tighter script and a bit more self-control, he might have approached the perfection of Heat (which it structurally resembles) or The Insider. But there’s a part of me that’s not quite sure he’s even shooting for that kind of “well-made film” anymore; he seems less interested in making a perfect film than in making a spontaneous, interesting picture that lives and breathes. If that’s the case, Public Enemies may be one of his greatest achievements: an experimental French New Wave riff cleverly disguised as a summer blockbuster. Kudos, Mr. Mann.