Public Enemies (2009), directed by Michael Mann, stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Jason Clark (Red), Stephen Dorff (Homer Van Meter), Channing Tatum (Pretty Boy Floyd), James Russo (Walter), Christian Bale (Melvin Purvis), Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Stephen Graham (Baby Face Nelson), Lili Taylor (Sheriff Lillian Holley), Giovanni Ribisi (Alvin Karpis), and Branka Katic (Anna Sage).
It starts with a prison escape. It is fast and vicious and goes badly wrong as one of the escapees gets shot and never makes it out, left hanging on to Dillinger’s hand while dying as the getaway car speeds off. That sets the tone.
This is one of those movies that is going to leave people a little puzzled. I have had that feeling quite a few times when watching Michael Mann’s work. I had it with Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), and with The Insider (1999). Mann has this obvious thing about surface and visuals and it snags your attention, but you have to be cautious about that kind of thing. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
In Heat there is a specific scene, just a flash of seconds really, where Neil (Robert DeNiro) puts his gun down on a glass tabletop. Ten years later I can call up that scene and that sound with almost perfect recall. It’s a matter of texture and precision and a certain indulgence on the director's part, I suppose. It didn’t propel the action forwards or have any meaning in the larger sense, but it still left an imprint on this viewer that won’t go away.
Here we are dealing with a lead character that a lot of people will have heard of, at least to some extent. We also have a cast of spectacularly good actors, like in Heat and Manhunter (which I still say is the better version of that particular narrative, despite The Silence of the Lambs). There is always going to be the sense that the actors weren’t used to their full potential.
Public Enemies' runtime is 140 minutes long. It could easily have been twice that to my mind. The era, the 1930s, lends itself beautifully to the big screen. The guys are in suits and fedoras, the girls are in pretty dresses, the cars have running boards, and the weapon of choice is the Tommy gun. If you’ve seen the still frames, you know what I mean. This is as visually appealing as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
We are also dealing with “real life,” although many small facts have been altered to fit the narrative here better. Despite that, anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the lead character knows that he was shot to death by the FBI, actually on the night of July 22 in 1934. So we know how this is going to end right from the get-go.
It sets up a sense of foreboding and inevitability right from that first prison break. That makes this a grim story for a lot of different reasons. There is also less of a glorification of the bank robbers than you would expect. They take hostages on their way out of banks in order to not get shot at by the law, and even though they mostly leave those people unharmed, they still use them as human shields, which must leave them deeply traumatized.
The representatives of the law are likewise not particularly easy to sympathize with. Hoover seems wound extremely tight and his go-to guy, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is a very serious young man. There is a rather unpleasant scene where Dillinger’s girl Billie gets slapped around by a G-man, and that leaves you feeling a little nauseous, despite how delicately it is handled.
When Dillinger's body was lying in the street outside the Biograph theater, many onlookers dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood as a souvenir. This movie doesn’t do that exactly, but it gives you that same sense of distance, surface and grim interest.
It’s not hard to like a movie as consistent and as visually pleasing as this one. There are some very, very good actors at the core of it, the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard, Johnny Depp playing a more subtle character than I have seen him do in a while, Christian Bale being a supporting actor, and so on and so forth with guys like Billy Graham and Giovanni Ribisi.
If you are looking for a caper movie or an action movie, this is not the thing to watch. This is more of a character study. Many of the locations, like the lodge at Little Bohemia in Manitowish, are the actual locations where scenes from Dillinger’s life took place. Rumour has it shell casings from that gunfight between the FBI and Dillinger’s gang can still be found in the woods surrounding the lodge. As a character study, though, it takes liberties with the truth as it has been documented.
I highly recommend it, nonetheless. I recommend it for the obvious tension in the narrative, for the visuals and the stellar cast. My only caution is that the fewer preconceived notions you have of what kind of movie this is the better you will fare and the more you will enjoy it.