Saturday, July 4, 2009

Public Enemies

There's nothing more American than Chicago gangsters, organized crime and the FBI. So that's what we decided to watch for our Fourth of July movie. 

Public Enemies is the new movie starring Johnny Depp as fabled gangster and Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger.  Directed by Michael Mann with a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, the movie is shot in digital which gives it a patina that is a little different from other big films.  In fact, I'd recommend watching it simply to watch the cinematography.   Mann makes it feel as if he went back in time to locations exactly as they were in the early 1930's - there is nothing "movie like" about the cinematography except the portions where the reporters show up and then it takes on a bit of a newsreel feel.  

Depp gives a great performance.  Very understated, his Dillinger is a man who is calm on the outside but driven on the inside with an appealing arrogance that comes across in the eyes and the corners of the mouth.   Christian Bale plays government agent Melvin Purvis whose best attribute seems to be his patience and sharpshooting ability and who is put in charge of the Chicago office because he killed Pretty Boy Floyd.  Having the two main characters played in such an understated way could have slowed down the action but Mann juxtaposes the calm of these men with the characters who surround them who are unpredictable in dangerous ways.   There are only a few women in the film and the main woman character is, of course, the love interest, Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard.  I found the character uninteresting as written and Cotillard didn't add anything that I could latch onto.   The best scene involving Cotillard is really a statement about the methods of interrogation used by the FBI rather than any kind of disclosure about her character.  Although there was some chemistry between she and Depp, there wasn't enough, I thought, to sustain the bare bones script.  It was never really clear to me what they saw in each other and, more, what they needed from each other (or rather what he needed from her). 

That, in fact, is the biggest problem with the film:  Mann seemed more interested in making a statement than in telling a story.   There is little to no explanation about what made John Dillinger become John Dillinger.  There is little to no explanation about why Frechette became Dillinger's one and only (and really why she would put up with him, although her lack of money would explain a lot of that). In each case there is enough that, after the movie, we could speculate.  But during the film it isn't there and that makes it hard to attach to the main character and hope that he gets away.  The "bad guys" in this film are bad and you wouldn't want them living next to you.  Dillinger is a criminal and he's going to meet his end one day and the audience knows that and I didn't sense any disapproval of that in the theater.  

On the other hand, Purvis has no back story and the government is portrayed as inept and, in fact, more of a danger to the citizens of Chicago and Wisconsin than the gangsters, violent though the gangsters are.   So it is almost impossible to root for the "good guys".   The only group that seems competent and not particularly dangerous is the group that represents organized crime; they are only about the money and when Dillinger's antics bring greater government scrutiny down on Chicago and threaten to lead to federal crime legislation that could be used to shut down their gambling operations they decide he is a liability. But the organized crime characters in the film are also shadowy and undeveloped so it isn't as if the audience is going to attach to them in any way.

I think that's what Mann wanted.  He wanted this ambivalence.  The title of the film is Public Enemies in the plural not the singular and I walked out of the film thinking that all of them, the gangsters and the government agents, were enemies of the public, endangering the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis.  The scene at Little Bohemia in Wisconsin where Purvis kills ordinary people who are simply leaving the bar to drive home is particularly chilling (maybe more so because it was shot on location in Wisconsin and the digital photography made it look like a place I could stop at for a drink next month when I'm up in the north woods).  The scenes outside the Biograph are also chilling because you realize that all of the bullets are flying as ordinary people are leaving the movie theater on a hot July night in Chicago (and maybe more chilling because I've been to the Biograph Theater in Chicago).   Interestingly there is a sense that Dillinger dies the way he would want to die, he would never want to be locked up forever.  But there is no audience satisfaction from knowing that fact.  What we were left wondering was why 10 government agents could not have taken one man alive and what would it have been like to have been walking out of the theater that night?

I do think Mann intentionally told the story this way to create this ambivalent feeling.  But it is a flaw.  A film without a character to attach to leaves you walking out feeling unfulfilled.  On the other hand, it is brilliantly shot with outstanding editing, it is well acted and the last 20 minutes or so are very suspenseful especially the intercutting between the actual Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, William Powell gangster movie that Dillinger is watching in the theater and what is going on around him.  Depp is such a charismatic actor that he doesn't need dialog to make a character and the last 20 minutes of this film show that.  So all in all I would recommend it with reservations.