Public Enemies (2009)

Director: Michael Mann

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By Roderick Heath

Without a by-your-leave, Public Enemies tosses the viewer into the midst of high-tensile action, as John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) seeks to bust several members of his gang out of an Indiana prison by pretending to be a prisoner under the armed escort, of another members of his gang. The hot-headedness of Ed Shouse (Michael Vieau) escalates the brilliant, daring plan into a murderous gunfight, causing the death of Walter Dietrich (James Russo), Dillinger’s mentor. John, infuriated, throws Shouse out of the getaway car.

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It’s the classic Michael Mann moment—the hard-assed antihero with the shade of death in his eye who tolerates no bullshit and lives by instinct and a subterranean moral code. When Dillinger reaches Chicago to live it up, he eyes a pretty flapper, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), on the dance floor. He approaches her with heedless, existential imperative and sweeps her off her feet with his urgent ardour, making her fall in love with him practically by force of will and the pheromones of the endangered beast, a soul-mate outsider seeking some new world.

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But the time for Dillinger and his associates—the famous panoply of glorified stick-up men like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi)—is running out. The big squeeze starts from two directions. Empire-building FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), needing a hook to sell his vision for the bureau, chooses stony professional Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), after he’s killed Floyd, to head the Chicago office to take on most of the remaining gangsters. The ensuing war, in which Purvis and his inexperienced agents find themselves severely outgunned, gives Hoover new political traction. This development stokes the wrath of Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) and the other syndicate bosses whose nascent, coast-to-coast empire could be endangered by the Bureau’s broadened powers. The result is that the mob refuses to aid “freelancer” Dillinger and his bank-robbing fellows.

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This also is a classic Mann moment: the lone operator facing a seemingly implacable conspiracy of corrupt overlords. The film’s liberties with the actual events are nearly as broad as any Hollywood hype, but a film further away from the sticky propaganda of, say, The FBI Story (1959) is harder to imagine. Mann’s best work is darkly, crucially romantic, with a fatalist, politicised heart. Even in his fresco-like biopic Ali (2001), Mann confirmed that his hero’s victories in the ring didn’t add up to hill of beans in the face of political and business dealings—it was only the spirit he showed that counted. Over the nearly 30 years since his debut with Thief (1981), Mann’s staked a claim as one of the most original and cohesive stylists amongst American directors. Where expectations for Public Enemies might have included deluxe retro-glam (not that it’s lacking) and idealised period stylisation, a la Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), instead of retreating into historicism, Mann looks for the germination of his concept of the modern world.

Despite its vintage material, Public Enemies is an urgently contemporary film, with the vigour of its editing and filming, the thunderous force of its intriguingly naturalistic action sequences, eliding the standard beats of period melodrama storytelling and instead immersing immediately in a teeming narrative. The use of handheld, often digital, cameras and natural lighting infuses the screen with a woozy, sooty, physically forceful grace (and yet Mann doesn’t trade in the incoherence that’s become the new mark of Hollywood cool). Which is not to say that there’s no connection between Mann’s eye and that of the culture of the period; like Hitchcock and Lang in their post-expressionist cinema, Mann offers up compositions that turn rows of convicts and hulking machines into cubist arrangements, charging objects with threat and watching the world of men bleed into that of anonymous technology. The FBI agents lurk in telephone exchanges, trying to master the new arts of electronic surveillance, the lights of the exchange glimmering like visions of twisted alchemist.

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Kinship between experts and their tools is another familiar Mann fascination. Like most truly great directors, Mann is intrigued by detail, by process, by wanting to show how we get to a point—watching Dillinger’s intricate understanding of his weapons, the agents in their fastidious methods, as technology becomes as much symbiotic partner for the efforts of his protagonists. James Caan in Thief, was some superheated vision of a scifi novel swathed in his gear as he burnt his way into a safe; Graham walked and talked himself into a serial killer’s perspective in Manhunter (1987); Ali relentless training his body, holding outside himself every taunt and pleasure until the time comes; even Hawkeye with his long rifle in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the basic avatar of Mann’s identification figures. Here, the gangsters wield their Tommy guns and BARs with ruthless force, and Purvis and the agents return with whatever ruthless force they have—the law and the fist.

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Mann’s stylisation turns these gunfights into urban guerrilla warfare that could be off the streets of Baghdad or Falluja, an angle that dances close to political allegory that deepens as Hoover presses Purvis to “take the white gloves off.” This directive reaches its nauseating apex when first Tommy Carroll (Spencer Garrett) is tortured for a hideout’s location, and then Billie is arrested (or is it renditioned?) and beaten by an agent (Adam Mucci) to force her to give up Dillinger’s hiding place; when she sends him on a wild goose chase, his wrath is only forestalled in the nick of time by Purvis. And yet Purvis is the face of the new, implacable authority hunting down the enemies of the new world, where Dillinger is the spirit of apolitical social revolution, an anarchist without a pamphlet, calling to mind Mann’s pointed presentation of nascent American independent Hawkeye as technical traitor and outlaw in his society. Mann finds in these furious confrontations of the will to enforce versus the will to resist, plus with the cacophonous power of modern weapons, the root of more contemporary issues. Dillinger finds fellowship with Billie through their mutual resentment and seething frustration. Whether in or outside the establishment, Mann’s heroes always come into conflict with some cabal within that establishment, their own fundamental rebelliousness sometimes liberating them, but more often condemning them to try to face down the engine coming at them. Mann renders his landscapes bony in spareness, forebodingly shadowed, a lunar landscape from which assurance and warmth are bled away.

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The entwining of a pair of strong men in conflict, and yet with more similarities than differences, is obviously similar to Heat (1995), but also familiar from the inside-out opposition of Chingachgook and Magua in Mohicans, Graham and Lecter in Manhunter (1986), and Woermann and Kaemplfer in The Keep (1984). But here the mirror is less the efficiently humourless, cocky Purvis, than the canny old Dallas lawman Charles Winstead (the great Stephen Lang) Purvis brings in to give his crew some old-school muscle, and it’s Winstead who delivers the bullet to Dillinger and the tragic last words he mutters to Billie. But Dillinger and Purvis are firmly linked in terms of ethics: neither will cross a certain line to achieve their ends. Purvis won’t allow torture of a woman; Dillinger won’t go into the easier, more lucrative business of kidnapping. The mirroring usually leads to a moment in which the hero steps outside himself, as Ali does in surveying the pictures of himself as world-beating colossus drawn by poverty-stricken villagers. For Dillinger, this moment happens when, with a brazenly, yet curious boyishness, he walks into the FBI office entirely devoted to his capture, looks over the information they have on him, and finds the staff lazily listening to a ball game on the radio, assuming he’s just another blow-in agent.

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Mann’s women have become nearly as signature as Howard Hawks’. Wary but hopeful, spunky but aware of their own endangerment in a hostile world, they’re attracted as if by gravity to men who usually bring on destruction. Cotillard’s smoky-eyed beauty, already well utilised for femmes fatale in Une Affair Privée (2002) and A Very Long Engagement (2004), sinks effortlessly into Mann’s milieu as a woman whose needy readiness to believe Dillinger’s pie-in-the-sky promises ought not to be confused with weakness. When Billie’s carted off to prison, Dillinger shacks up quickly enough with Romanian immigrant Anna Sage (Branka Katic) and blowsy call-girl and aspiring waitress Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski). But his heart belongs to Billie, to whom he kisses “Bye bye, Blackbird” in his dying breath.

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Inevitably, the climax, in which Dillinger is gunned down outside the Biograph Theatre, has a quality of letdown, and yet Mann stages it with operatic verve, building through cross-cutting montage tied with a swirling score (as in his great finales to The Keep, Manhunter, and Mohicans) until the startling moment in which Dillinger is shot, the bullet bursting out through his face and leaving him sprawled on the sidewalk. Depp, here free of Disney and Tim Burton, gets to do his most graceful, subtle acting in a while, giving heft to Mann’s essential accord with the spirit, if not the style, of all those old-school gangster flicks: the villain’s much more likable than the supposed goodies.

Tough, grim, complex, and bristling with energy, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year. l

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 12:27 pm

    It pisses me off that the handheld made me too sick to watch this. I saw up to the point where he meets Billie, and was digging it so much. Great review, Rod.

  • Greg F. spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 1:28 pm

    Tough, grim, complex, and bristling with energy, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year.
    Better than Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian? Oh wait, you probably haven’t seen that yet.

  • J.D. spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 3:24 pm

    Excellent post! This is my fave film of the year as well for many of the reasons you stated above. Interesting comparison to the underrated ALI, a film of Mann’s which I really like and improves upon subsequent viewings.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 9:20 pm

    Well Mare, all I can say is that many films use handheld cameras in a way that bugs the hell out of me, but not this one. I found this film’s camerawork quite extraordinary. Maybe you can try it again on DVD, but I’m actually dreading how squashed this film would look on a television.
    Yeah, JD, I dug Ali a lot back when it came out, although Will Smith was, frankly, I think it can be admitted at last, very miscast. Anyone looking for standard heroic narrative in that film was disappointed, but I saw something much more interesting, because it gave its recreated world time to breathe and come alive in the margins, and it tried to avoid bullshitting about the meaning of the man’s image. I need to see it again. Mann’s worst film of the decade has been the only one that’s really connected with audiences, the dolorous Collateral.
    As for the current movie season, I’m looking forward to The Hurt Locker, which be all accounts has similarities to Public Enemies, in existential cool.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 10:11 pm

    I don’t object to directors using whatever tools they think work, Rod. I lament only that I become too physically ill to watch them. I was deeply looking forward to this film, enjoyed it until the point where I started turning green, and regretfully left.
    Funny thing – I went to a screening of a film pitched to me at work. It turned out to be a Christian recruitment film, shot very traditionally until the protagonist has his moment of doubt in God. Then the director switched to grainy handheld (hardly moved, but noticeable given the rest of the film). I laughed at this experiment in modern edginess. Seriously, it seems they’ll do anything to attract the youth of today!

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 10:23 pm

    LOL. You know, I’ve ever once been made ill by watching a shaky image – and that was when I sat through three hours of home movies shot by a family acquaintance whose idea of cinematography seemed to be to put everything on maximum zoom and then have an attack of palsy. It screwed up my inner ear so badly I had to go to bed and sleep it off.
    Otherwise, no problem. But oh, man, the number of facile and needless uses of handheld (or, as we call it around my place, “wobblecam”) are legion. A lot of Hollywood hacks, especially, hurl it at the screen without any contemplation of how it should work – especially in action scenes. For instance, JJ Abrams badly hurt his otherwise admirable Star Trek by jerking his camera around in the fights. I’m making my way through the new Star Wars films at the moment, and one thing I like about them is their complete resistance of such crap.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/09/2009 to 10:35 pm

    It’s a phase. It’ll burn out. I’ve managed to sit through one shaky cam film, Cloverfield, for which the choice was really the only one. It’s a fine film and one I intend to review soon. It’s really the definitive post-9/11 film for me.

  • J.D. spoke:
    22nd/09/2009 to 3:31 pm

    Rod: I actually thought Smith did quite a good playing ALI. I really couldn’t think of anyone else playing him as well… Maybe an unknown but obviously the studio demanded that a name actor portray him. So, not a big fan of COLLATERAL, eh? I dunno… Quite frankly, Cruise and Foxx turned in very impressive performances and Mann was actually able to tone down both of their respective acting tics and schtick and actually have them play out of their comfort zones. I normally am not too crazy about either actor but I thought they did a fine job. That being said, the film does fall apart for me in the last third where any semblance of logic goes out the window.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/09/2009 to 10:50 pm

    Oh, I thought Smith was good. But still miscast. He was fine when he got to play the intimate character, but it was hard to forget he was just giving a performance when it came to the more impersonatory scenes.
    I wouldn’t argue with Cruise and Foxx being good in Collateral either – they were. Cruise in particular ought to have played a villain long before. But yeah, that last act really hurt the movie, and the whole thing only had the faintest sheen of Mann’s individuality.

  • Doug spoke:
    24th/09/2009 to 11:22 am

    I really enjoyed this post. I totally agreed on how Mann created a work with a contemporary feel, yet his years of professionalism gave a solid bed of technique that didn’t allow the fast cuts and high shot-count to bleed over into “Like Wow” territory. You articulated all the things I wanted to say about this film in a strong and compelling way.

  • Rod spoke:
    24th/09/2009 to 9:51 pm

    Cheers, Doug. No, Mann doesn’t do “Like Wow”, in the remarkable physicality he can infuse his action scenes with. After seeing this I purposefully re-watched Mohicans, admiring the way he constructed the period action scenes with the same intimate force as here, and the clever way he kept alternating a kind of stark realism with a more stylized grace, although his technique has grown both more aggressive since then. One problem I had, which I attribute more to the poor sound system in the theater I saw it in than to an actual technical deficiency, was catching a lot of the dialogue.

  • Rick spoke:
    29th/09/2009 to 9:20 pm

    My favorite film of the year so far as well, Rod. Good job articulating it, and pointing out what a lot of reviewers failed to (including, if I remember aright, me): the rather pointed references to the U.S. sad forays into the wide, wide world of torture.

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/09/2009 to 12:31 am

    Yeah…It’s interesting too that the film asks pointed questions about what justifies such a violence, and finally defines the good guys as those who don’t do it. It’s interesting how recent cinema has been interested with torture. Much of it’s just raw provocation, the mutant offspring of the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. But many have of course suspected a secret link between the fascination with harsh violence inflicted on pinioned flesh, that’s been reflected in the recent torture-porn Horror films, and the War on Terror, that horrid irony that combating “terror” entails inflicting a more terribly intimate version of it on people. Mann’s way of engaging with it is telling, because the torture-porn films are more about testing the audience – the key-note of the hideous Saw films is the proposition that the tortures are a kind of moral test, thus implicating the on-screen suffering with the audience’s suffering: can you take it? are you worthy? Mann asks more crucial questions in common with last year’s Hunger: what gives any individual or institution the right to do such things? What does this do to the cause, however righteous, in question? What is a legitimate “cause”, and when and how does it cease to be legitimate?

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