Public Enemies opens up on a prison where John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is being held. Dillinger has already made a name for himself as a bank robber. He’s a celebrity throughout the nation, and he’s got friends. A lot of friends, which is how he breaks out of prison on multiple occasions.
It seems like nothing can hold Dillinger back. He’s rampaging across the U.S. holding up banks. Steadily a legend about the man grows. He takes on a sort of mythical aspect. He tells people to keep their money that he’s only there for the bank’s money. Stories like this only fuel the myth of the man.
Depp plays Dillinger with a cocky arrogance, which after all the History Channel specials and all the material I’ve read of him, seems pretty accurate. He felt untouchable. Like a rockstar in his own right. He’s brazen and daring, but he isn’t stupid. He knows how to manipulate people. He plans prison escapes and bank robberies to perfection. He’s a legend in his own mind, and it’s fun to watch Depp give it all he’s got.
At the same time Dillinger is plundering the nation’s banks, the FBI and a man named Hoover (Billy Crudup) are trying to make a name for themselves. Hoover is trying to establish the FBI as the nation’s bureau of investigation. Many congressmen and senators seem more the skeptical about it actually working.
This newly formed federal investigative unit needs something big, and catching Dillinger would solidify their place. Hoover appoints a young agent in charge of catching Dillinger and his gang. Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is much tougher than his name would suggest. Fresh off his finding and killing of outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, Purvis assembles a team of agents to hunt down Dillinger.
Dillinger falls for a young French girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). It’s possession at first sight. Dillinger, so cocky and sure of himself, basically informs Billie that she is now his. But, he does it with such bravado and finesse that it’s hard not to agree with him.
A cat and mouse game is played by Purvis and Dillinger, with Billie caught in the middle. The two men vying for glory and fame try to outdo one another continually. It’s fascinating to watch. People may find Michael Mann’s raw filming style hard to adapt to. The entire film was shot digitally and has a look that can only be described as “home-movie-ish.” It looks like the reenactments you see on the History Channel, probably because Mann chose to film it in a higher frame per second rate than the standard twenty-four. Some points in the film do suffer from too much “shaky-cam” making what’s onscreen blurry or unrecognizable.
People going to Public Enemies expecting a rock ‘em sock ‘em thrill ride may be disappointed. It does have its intense shootout scenes, but they have a different feel to them. Even when tommy guns are going off left and right, Public Enemies doesn’t feel like an action movie. It plays out more like a melodrama chronicling Dillinger’s life and eventually his death.
I’m always amazed when a director takes on a historical account and can still make it exhilarating. Dillinger dies, everyone should know that. It’s in the history books; you can look it up anywhere. But, that scene leading up to his execution on that busy road is a thrilling climax to this film.
Dillinger was a force. He thought he was untouchable. When his world started to collapse in around him he had nowhere to turn, but he still kept his cool. That’s the kind of man he was. That’s the kind of man the nation actually adored.