Public Enemies can best be understood as a mostly successful fusion of the two disparate sides of writer-director Michael Mann. He’s always functioned as a hybrid of pop and art, sliding back and forth between technical prowess and something less easily defined but that puts a greater emphasis on energy or charisma. This was never clearer than in the 1980s, when he was simultaneously executive producing “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story” for NBC. No one needs convincing of the cheeseball nature of the former, but the latter was just as important for allowing Mann to set the course for where he would go as far as crafting a gritty, complicated cops-and-robbers narrative. It’s the sizzle and the steak, the style and the substance, and Mann is able to skillfully bring them together for much of Public Enemies. The film isn’t perfect — the protagonist’s inability to look beyond his next 24 hours bleeds over into the film, letting it drift a bit too far afield — but it still finds moments of redemption in being a tightly drawn, solidly made, gorgeous rendering of a bygone time and the end of era.
The film opens and spends most of its time in 1933, when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), George “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) and others are making the most of the Depression and ripping off every bank they come across. The story begins with Dillinger and John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke) busting some of their contemporaries out of prison, and it’s clear from the start that Mann’s film won’t be quite like other period pieces. Mann is once again shooting digitally, working with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Dante Spinotti to capture the images on a Sony HD video camera. He used to it strong effect in Collateral, capturing the bruised orange of the Los Angeles sky at night, and Public Enemies returns to that almost runny veneer, creating a look that feels almost too liquid to be controlled. Opting for noise over grain, Mann’s film feels immediately real, grounding a historical drama by giving it a modern execution that makes it more bracing and less removed than film might have done to the story. By swapping the classic look of film for the sheen of digital, Mann pumps an almost queasy amount of life into the picture, and it’s a strong emotional complement to a story about men living too hard and too fast, just barely contained by the world.
Unfortunately, after the prison break, Dillinger doesn’t have many goals other than to rob a bank, stay alive, get a good steak, and spend time with his fellow criminals. His lack of an external motive isn’t necessarily bad, but by refusing to give him a proper emotional arc until too late in the film, Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman take what could have been a riveting look at the final months of a larger-than-life criminal and reduce it to a meandering melodrama in search of an anchor for its characters. Dillinger pursues and wins the company and eventually the heart of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), but the film takes too long to transition him from her owner to her protector, and though there are a few moments toward the end that sadly cement the doomed nature of their love, too much of their time is given to Dillinger’s superficial need to have her just because.
The film occasionally slips off track, but Mann mostly manages to regain control when dealing with Dillinger’s ever-present conflict with the law as embodied by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who took down Pretty Boy Floyd and has been appointed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to run the Chicago office and task force charged with apprehending Dillinger. The narrative is ultimately propelled by the interstate game of cat and mouse, hinging upon several key battles and chase sequences, including an epic shootout in a wooded cabin at night between a team of federal agents and a crew that includes Dillinger. These are the most explosive and tautly directed and edited sequences in the film, and Mann’s skill with action movies combined with the compelling grace of the digital photography makes them heartstopping.
The re-creation of the early days of the Bureau of Investigation is fascinating; the screenplay is based on Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, and the author told Vanity Fair last year that the script was “by far the closest thing to fact Hollywood has attempted.” Mann’s love of police work shines through in his devotion to telling a story about men trying to catch a killer without radios, databases, or anything modern crime dramas take for granted. Tapped phone calls are saved on actual records; officers use pay phones to contact each other; the Bureau is still so new that its field agents don’t know the basics of doing a stakeout; etc., etc. Mann’s fastidious attention to detail makes for a beautiful movie and an interesting idea of the early days of law enforcement, but too often it feels like just that: a series of ideas that never quite gelled into a story.
However, Depp and Bale are trademark names for a reason, and their performances are usually enough to tip the scales in their favor. Bale is getting good at playing men icily devoted to the pursuit of a single object, regardless of cost: Purvis’ slow acceptance of the greater lengths he’s willing to go to just to find Dillinger are an easy mirror of Bale’s work as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which is a good thing. Depp has a slightly tougher time finding the roots of Dillinger, especially since Mann seems more focused on creating a good movie and not on filling it with interesting people, but he’s still effortlessly charming and manages to convey Dillinger’s rightful paranoia as his career evading the law grows longer and more dangerous each day.
Dillinger was the Bureau’s Public Enemy No. 1, but on several occasions in the film, the agents pursuing him wind up following or fighting with Nelson. It’s as if Mann is trying to, if not shift the blame, at least make Dillinger out to be a more populist thief than the more murderous and apparently vastly less mentally stable Baby Face. Mann wants to show him as a robber and criminal, but also to empathize with the legend that romanticizes him. (Taking a page from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Mann’s Dillinger is fascinated with his own press and the manner in which he’s been immortalized even before his death.) But while Mann’s gifted at synthesizing the opposing sides of his own personality as a director, merging a by-the-numbers crime story with something that yearns for pop opera, he never manages to come down on any particular side of Dillinger. Maybe he was reluctant to lionize a killer and thief at the expense of the lawmen he respected, or maybe he was unwilling to condemn a man who took from the rich but tried to look out for the poor. Public Enemies is a strong film, one with moments of real beauty and excitement, but in the end, the flash and substance battle to a draw.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.