I’ve never been the kind of cineaste who cares much about the technical side of cinema: aspect ratios and film stocks and whether something was shot in 35mm or 70mm or whatever. I just don’t care. Maybe that makes me no kind of cineaste at all, and just a poor pathetic girl who doesn’t really understand movies the way they’re supposed to be understood. All I know is that story and character have tended to be way more important to me than what kind of camera the cinematographer used.
That said, I’m wildly intrigued by Public Enemies even though I readily concede that character development is all but nonexistent, and that it leaves me wanting to know who notorious bank robber John Dillinger was more so than I did before I went into the film.
Backstory? Forget it. Motivations? Never mind. This is a movie that exists completely in its own moment — not in the past, not in the future. (And maybe that says the most important thing there is to say about Dillinger.) Very much like Michael Mann’s previous film, 2006’s Miami Vice, Public Enemies drops us right into the middle of one of the key moments of American law and disorder… and it leaves us to float, if we can, without anything to hang on to except for the flotsam and jetsam we find around us.
I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But it is an intellectual thing, which means it’s not the kind of thing that American audiences tend to want from a movie. This isn’t a “let’s go have a good time at the multiplex and forget our woes” kind of movie. It’s a “I really want to think about what I’m watching” kind of movie. Which probably means it’s doomed, from a box-office perspective.
Deep into Public Enemies, the little voice in the back of my movie-critic head was saying, OK, sure, it’s full of raw grace but it’s kinda emotionally cold… and so why am I so caught up in it anyway? And at the same time I found myself thinking, My god, the resolution of the image is extraordinary: I can see every pore of Christian Bale’s face and every whisker on Johnny Depp’s cheek. I found myself actually pondering — even while I was watching the completely riveting and charismatic Johnny Depp onscreen! — that this had to have been shot in some sort of high-def video to have achieved such an unaffected physicality. And indeed, that is the case: this movie was not shot on film, and so it does not have anything like the shadowy, dreamlike quality film often has. Public Enemies is intimate in an animal sense, getting us on top of Depp’s Dillinger and Bale’s proto FBI agent Melvin Purvis without letting us get to know them. It’s like having sex with a total stranger: it’s thrilling and scary and maybe not something you’d actually do in real life. But as an experience … whoa.
I might be harder on the film if I didn’t think this was a deliberate choice by Mann — who also wrote the screenplay, with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. But it’s pretty clear, by the end of the film, when — no spoilers! — we see Dillinger at the movies himself, at a showing of the gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell and Myrna Loy. Mann is clearly announcing, by how he frames this sequence, that he has deliberately avoided any sense that he wishes us to take anything histrionic or exaggerated from his take on a gangster. Mann sees nothing noble in either Dillinger or Purvis — who fights his own strange battles at the nascent FBI — or in Marion Cotillard’s Billie, the gangster’s moll who is equally not elaborated upon.
Nothing at all, in fact, in Public Enemies is glamorized or glorified — even Depp’s unavoidable sexiness is, well, not exactly muted but not at all celebrated. Depp may be constantly one-upping himself, but here that means undercutting his screen charisma to leave us pondering the strange dichotomy of famous criminals: we simultaneously appreciate how Dillinger could have been irresistible to the 1930’s public while also seeing the sham that his fame was.
Perhaps the most intellectually rousing aspect of Public Enemies is how modern it feels. The agents of the “Bureau of Investigation” — which wasn’t yet the FBI — may have no radios and no cell phones with which to communicate in the field, but the eavesdropping technology they have to listen in on phone calls is totally high-tech geek … for the Great Depression. The notion that the entrepreneurial Dillinger was put out of business not just by increasingly organized cops but by increasingly organized crime feels like an indictment of the 20th century on the whole.
We don’t know Dillinger by the end, but we do get him. Maybe that’s the most modern thing of all about this frustrating and fascinating film.