Michael Mann has never truly been what one could call an “actor’s director.” He is more focused on telling a brilliant story then getting great performances. It’s the trait that has separated him and Martin Scorsese, the only other American director to have directed as many crime classics as Mann. Both have had casts of similar talent with Scorsese crafting the better film usually because of better performances from his cast. It’s hard to deny that notion once again with Public Enemies, which tells a magnificent story without any truly brilliant performances.
Focusing on the end of the “Public Enemies” era of American crime, the film features two main storylines. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a folk hero to some but a bank robber who used military tactics he learned in prison to efficiently and effectively walk out with more cash than his contemporaries. Finding the woman of his dreams (Mario Cotillard) at a cocktail party, Dillinger and his crew of hoodlums are on the lamb from local and federal authorities. Dillinger mastered the art of crossing state lines, as there was no national jurisdiction or laws involving interstate commerce used against criminals in that time before Dillinger. In many ways he was the last of his kind; a bank robber who lived on the edge. Dillinger knows this and is trying to forestall the disappearance of men of his kind; the future leads only to the grave and he is at an interesting peace with his lifestyle.
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is a top FBI agent who is the apple of the eye of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Heading up the task force to capture Dillinger, Purvis was the first of the “G-men” which Hoover developed to radically change law enforcement in the U.S. Purvis was charged with one goal: bring down Dillinger. Using what were radical techniques for the era, the FBI used science and logic-based methods of detection to solve crime more effectively. Purvis is a man stepping in shoes perhaps too big for him; he is known for his slaying of criminals “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson, amongst others, and taking down Dillinger is what made him an icon in his time.
Mann’s perspective on the proceedings is that the two are on the doorsteps of their own fates. The film focuses on a different perspective than Mann’s usual focus on criminal and cop. Public Enemies is more about the chase than the catch itself. For Dillinger the chase allows him to stay alive one more day; being able to out run, out gun and out think the local and federal authorities on his trail give him a reason to exist. He lives for that chase, the thrill after the robbery and the spoils it involves. For Purvis the chase is a means to an end. Professional success and respect is what he seems to want the most and Dillinger is the man who’ll give it to him.
Public Enemies doesn’t rely on Depp and Bale, two of the best actors working, for its drama. This is purely a director’s film in that the focus is on the story and not the characters. If it wasn’t they’d feel derivative of most significant crime films. Depp is flamboyant and owns the screen, but Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington have done better jobs in similar films so it’s not a shocker that a famous criminal could be played with such pizzazz. Bale is a cop trying to do his job against a foe who gets the better of him, which isn’t much of a stretch from generic cop roles in generic crime films. What separates these solid performances from other films that were dragged down by them is that Mann is masterful in how he plots the film. We see the descent of Dillinger from his peak to the final shootouts that would leave most of his old crew dead or captured. We feel the tension and pressure Purvis is under from those above and below him. And we feel the end of an era when Dillinger finally meets his bloody end, as Mann goes for more of a docudrama then a traditional crime film.
This isn’t exactly the most accurate when it comes to depicting main story points. There are glaring historical inaccuracies, mainly for dramatic purposes, but this also covers an era that has wildly differing tales of events to start with. One can’t blame Mann in this respect, as the actual history would make for a much different film. He does get huge chunks of details correct, especially the final shootout, but one doesn’t see a film like Public Enemies because of how historically accurate it is. You see it because it has a great story and because Michael Mann does crime action sequences spectacularly well.
No crime film can be complete without them and Public Enemies does more with less. There is great cinematography and spectacular setup, and it’s in the details that Public Enemies radiates. Using guns and equipment from the Depression, Mann has trained his actors well. Depp is surprisingly adept with a Thompson submachine gun and Bale looks like he’s been using a bolt-action rifle for years. The realism adds to the film because the real life men were legendary for their ability to use the weapons of the time. Its little things, like Depp loading a machine gun in the middle of a firefight without being distracted by the bullets whizzing by him; these kinds of thing Mann absolutely nails and it elevates the film’s intensity to a different level. It’s about atmosphere and intensity more than acting, Mann’s niche in film, and its fascinating material. He’s not there to explore Dillinger’s past, or why he does the things he does; this is about the man himself and the time frame.
This is a film about the end of an era and the beginning of another and Mann understands this intrinsically. It’s hard to argue against Public Enemies being the best film he’s made and it’s one of the best of 2009.
Michael Mann used an HD format instead of the usual 35mm film for Public Enemies and there’s a richness that translates and transfers wonderfully. The video is crisp and clean, in a widescreen format, as the film’s muted colors and attention to detail for the period come through wonderfully. The audio is terrific as well.
Larger Then Life Adversaries is a piece about the two men the film centers around. Running slightly over 10 minutes, the piece focuses on Depp and Bale getting into character by researching their real life counterparts. Bale actually met with Purvis’s family, studying the way the real Melvin Purvis acted and spoke to try and make it as authentic as possible.
There’s also a Commentary with Mann.
With not a lot of extras, the single disc edition doesn’t have much to it. If you’re looking for the film and no more, this is definitely the one to pick up.
Universal presents Public Enemies. Directed by Michael Mann. Starring Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum. Written by Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman based off the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34″ by Bryan Burrough. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD December 8th, 2009. Available at Amazon.
Tags: Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Christian Bale, Giovanni Ribisi, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Michael Mann, Public Enemies, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Graham