Before talking about what Public Enemies is, it’d be good to put on the table everything it isn’t. First of all, it isn’t a conscious genre exercise. While Public Enemies retains a classical narrative framework familiar to the gangster film—switching back-and-forth between parallel stories of police and the gangsters in a plot device that’s been used in everything from White Heat to The Departed—it is neither a self-conscious tongue-in-cheek reworking of the genre’s many myths and conventions nor is it a conscious homage to the classic form of a genre that reached its initial peak during the time period portrayed. So Public Enemies is not something that will become a benchmark in the gangster film canon, neither progressing the genre towards a radical new territory nor revisiting its classic form. It seems to waver somewhere in the middle, approaching the time period with digital camerawork that results in a refreshing new style for the genre (though it’s not always effective) while being wrapped up in conventional, straightforward, and even predictable storytelling—and both these factors work largely in the film’s favor.
There’s nothing complex about the plot of Public Enemies, which covers the last few years of John Dillinger’s (Johnny Depp) infamous career as a bank-robber in the early 1930s as he is pursued by an investigative team lead by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Along the way, Dillinger quickly falls for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a struggling singer that seems in equal parts attracted to Dillinger’s lifestyle as she is to his restrained charismatic charm. While Depp and Cotillard retain believable (but not amazing) chemistry, and while the story even allows the actress a few opportunities to be a bit smarter, more independent, and even a bit more badass than her character type is typically allowed to be, Public Enemies is still not “about” this love story subplot that neither stalls the film nor pushes it forward.
Public Enemies isn’t even about the bank robberies—of which the film has only three, and they are hardly its most exciting moments. What Public Enemies boils down to is a battle of egos between two men on each side of the law. And the appeal of this film is not in the tried-and-true rehashing of a familiar plot that has worked again and again, but in its masterful execution by those both in front of and behind the camera.
The performances are all around pretty spot-on. While in bare narrative terms, Depp is situated as a good guy and Bale the villain, both are envisioned with such depth and moral ambiguity as to manifest two truly fascinating multidimensional characters pitted against one another rather than being reduced to simple archetypes. Depp’s Dillinger is indeed a criminal who is capable of being violent whenever necessary, but he is never heartless or ruthless. He has an ego, but this personality aspect is interpreted more as a utility allowing him the necessary confidence to commit such ballsy crimes rather than an unattractively self-involved trait. Bale’s Purvis, meanwhile, is a man of many contradictions. He shows characteristics of nobility when need be for those he perceives as innocent, but he’s willing to go far past the line of tact to get his target. This characteristic of Purvis is thoroughly made clear in his simple but telling introductory scene: he’s an excellent marksman, but he’s willing to shoot a man in the back. The strength of the film’s lead characters and those actors embodying them are what makes Public Enemies such a joy to watch, and are the film’s greatest and most consistent strengths.
Perhaps the film’s most uneven performance is Steven Graham (of Snatch fame) as Baby Face Nelson. Graham’s is fun to watch, and he attempts a portrayal as larger-than-life and iconic as the legend of the man himself, one in which Nelson voraciously eats up the celebrity status of the gangster, hinted at with his winking nod to James Cagney. But Graham’s performance occasionally delves into caricature and feels like it comes from a completely different movie. The only reason that I mention this minor supporting character is because this performance highlights how atypically understated Depp’s Dillinger is. Forgoing the outlandish force of personality previously seen in his Jack Sparrow or his many collaborations with Tim Burton, Depp chooses to tone it down for Michael Mann, creating a character knowledgeable of his mammoth celebrity (as shown in the two great scenes in movie theaters) and exuding impervious confidence, yet Dillinger here remains grounded in a surprising degree of clear-headed, modest humanity, an elevated icon who is all to aware of his own vulnerability.
Depp’s subtle approach to Dillinger makes him a sympathetic gangster, and the modesty, intelligence and restraint Depp endows him with is also posited in the film to be the source of Dillinger’s continuing success (as opposed to the unthinking, unreserved rampage of Nelson). Perhaps Depp’s most understated performance in awhile was only made effective through the recent stardom and bankability of the longtime character actor, thus automatically giving Dillinger a superstar weight by instilling in him the persona of the modern movie star; either way, it works. Rounding out a cast of supporting caharcters who make the most out of limited, shared screen time is an effectively comic Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, and seeing a slightly plump Crudup deliver 30s dialogue so convincingly makes Dr. Manhattan this year’s uber-chameleon.
Mann’s digital approach thankfully hits here more than it misses, as Dante Spinotti’s cinematography captures certain moments of incredible beauty and vibrancy of color that simply feels like a fresh departure from film; and once you allow yourself to sink in to the unique visual style of Public Enemies (which may take awhile), the digital aesthetic complements and stratifies rather than detracts from the film, despite the odd decision of choosing digital for a period piece. But it doesn’t work all the time. The incredible sequence at Dillinger’s wooded hideout exhibits the best and worst of the technology: it has given Mann and co. the ability to shoot with unparalleled detail, especially at night (thus replacing the annoying “day-for-night” blue hue usually used in film), but it seems like no filmmaker, including Mann, has quite mastered the art of rapidly moving the camera without it looking at least a little amateurish.
The sound design similarly contains a range of strengths and weaknesses. Characteristic of Mann, gunshots are wonderfully loud and realistic, making the action scenes that much more visceral (and it’s just so awesome to see Mann do the tommygun justice). But, showing some symptoms of the filmmaker’s occasional propensity for tone over story coherence that worked toward the detriment of Miami Vice (2006), he awkwardly throws off the levels of dialogue, sound effects and music, sometimes making the words coming out of actor’s mouths incomprehensible and causing some of the film’s opening moments to fall flat. But unlike Miami Vice, Public Enemies only indulges in this practice in its initial minutes before finding a workable balance of sound. Perhaps most jarring, however, is Elliot Goldenthal’s score, which has moments of immense power, but comes and goes awkwardly and abruptly, taking one out of the experience of watching the film and making some scenes lose their intended emotional weight.
Public Enemies is an engaging and entertaining film, coupling smart and talented filmmaking with effective performances into a an end result that says nothing profoundly new, but treads both familiar and unexplored territories of the gangster genre with delightful skill and respect of audience intelligence. A comforting combination of an old story with new technological experimentation, Michael Mann is still a master storyteller who makes movies quite unlike the rest of Hollywood, and Public Enemies is his strongest effort since The Insider.