Public Enemies
directed by Michael Mann
(Universal, 2009)

Do you know what I truly appreciated about Michael Mann's Public Enemies? It was the fact that not once did I feel like I was watching an event-by-event biopic of legendary bank robber John Dillinger. True, it is meant to portray some of the most important events of his short-lived life during the Depression, but the story on a whole has a refreshing rhythm of ebb and flow that seems to hold and rock the audience instead of hurtling it through a set timeline.

The movie is constructed through give and take between Dillinger's story (Johnny Depp) and that of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his starlet detective Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).

We get to see a side of the 1930s that is simply about circumstance and timing, and the men who exploited this to their advantage. Dillinger is not just the center of the narrative, he is the catalyst for everything that goes on, and that is why we seem to sway with the story between the creation of the FBI and Dillinger, a man with no known motives other than that he has found a "business" he loves and that "business" seems to love him back.

I believe most people in the audience weren't quite prepared for this sort of narrative, the kind that doesn't spoon-feed you every detail, and it never allows you a full intake from either protagonist's point of view. I'll admit that even after the film had ended I still was annoyed that I had been deprived of every single historical detail. Although the camerawork was handled with the air of a documentary film, never getting too fancy or audience-friendly with a lot of convenient close-ups, it doesn't break down the information like one. The movie is truly unique, frustrating, but nonetheless unique.

I finally chalked it all up to the fact that it was done on purpose, and if it wasn't, then shame on Michael Mann and fellow writer Ronan Bennett for their serious lack of research. The purpose of it all seems to be that because both Purvis and Dillinger put such an arrogant emphasis on having the intellectual one-up on the other, that when they win the little battles throughout the war, their opponent and the audience is left there stunned and never the wiser. Perhaps it is Mann's way of keeping up with the folklore that made both Dillinger and Purvis famous American heroes.

That is why we never know how Purvis shockingly catches Dillinger the first time, or how Dillinger manages to communicate to his girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) her escape plan from Chicago even with her phone tapped and her every move watched by the FBI. It is all apart of storytelling -- keeping the mystery alive.

Both Depp and Bale play Dillinger and Purvis in such a no-nonsense manner that it isn't difficult to make the connection between them. They understand that success only stems from how well they handle their own public relations, but this doesn't make them any less human. They each have their own private code of conduct and ethics. This is probably why we so easily fall on the side of Dillinger -- we see that he has a heart. We see it in the way he fiercely protects and stays loyal to Billie, and in the way he doesn't believe in killing for killing's sake.

It's kind of incredible how, after all is said and done, Mann undoubtedly created a film that indulges both legend and stark, cold fact.

review by
Molly Ebert

30 January 2010

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