Public Enemiesby Roger Young / 03.09.2009
There is no one thing wrong with Michael Mann’s new Depression era violence spectacular. It tries to be many things: a semi faithful biopic, a discussion on the role of organized crime in stamping out the little guys as an allegory on big business’ relationship with entrepreneurs, and a look into how all sides use the media to embroider their histories and futures. That it tries to look into all these things while taking in a love story means that it never really gets into the psychology of the two main protagonists, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and John Dillinger (Johnny Depp).
The film starts with a botched prison breakout that results in the death of the man that Dillinger came to free. That the protracted death resonates little is entirely the fault of the Mann, who punctuates his stylized violence with brief emotional précis. When Dillinger tracks down the woman he has fallen for in order to taker her away with him she protests that she “knows nothing about you”. His reply characterizes the whole film: “I grew up poor, my daddy beat me because he didn’t know no better. I like fast cars, whiskey and expensive things. What more do you need to know?” Indeed more love is heaped on the close-ups of whiskey, cars, guns and cigars than on any of the characters’ motivations. Baby Face Nelson makes an appearance as a broad caricature, which is not helped by the fact that he is played so close to the O Brother Where Art Thou parody version. You actually have to wonder if Mann saw that film or did any research at all.
My main gripe with PE is that it feels as if it hasn’t been thought through properly. Some if it is shot on digital video to, I guess, make it seem edgy. But digital flare out on the bonnets of Model T Fords is jarring. The relationship between Dillinger and the woman never really feels real, probably because none of the participants do. Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson’s team up feels like a comic book crossover more than a real ‘let’s use each other’ moment. Supporting characters seem interchangeable at best and unnecessary at worst; never good for portrayals of people who were actually there.
Maybe it’s a brave move for Mann to try and portray the events as they were, focusing just on those last few weeks of Dillinger’s life, shying away from bang bang mythologizing. But he cannot resist fetishising the close-ups of the dying moments of the film and when that happens it renders all his restraint worth naught. Johnny Depp looks hot firing a tommy gun, wearing a pin stripe suit though, if that’s what you’re into.
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale