Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public Enemies (2009)

Director: Michael Mann                                Writers: Ronan Bennett & Michael Mann
Film Score: Elliot Goldenthal                        Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard and Stephen Lang

Yet another telling of the John Dillinger story, which began in 1945 with Lawrence Tierney in the title role of Dillinger, continued with Robert Conrad’s The Lady in Red from 1979, and has now reached Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. In a way, this is a more detailed telling of the last years of Dillinger’s life, and there’s a greater sense of trying to get those details right. For example, unlike the 1979 film, which has Dillinger’s girlfriend going to the movies with him and signaling the FBI agents, in reality she was sitting in a jail cell when he was gunned down. But the new film also gives equal time to Melvin Purvis, who headed up the investigation in Chicago.

The film opens with Johnny Depp as Dillinger, being processed into the Indiana State Prison, where his friends inside have engineered a successful escape. The scene next shifts to Christian Bale as Purvis, gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd in Ohio, thus introducing the two characters who will be playing a deadly game of cat and mouse the rest of the film. Dillinger has great success robbing banks because, as he says, the police can’t be everywhere at once. On the flip side, J. Edgar Hoover has become embarrassed by the success of the bank robbers and sets Purvis up as the point man to take them down. One of the interesting things about historical films like this, where the audience knows the outcome, is what the writers and director do to build suspense. In this case it’s rather easy, as so many myths have been proliferated in older films that by telling the real story it becomes fresh and new.

The most curious thing about this film, however, and simultaneously its biggest downfall, is that there’s very little character development. Most of the blame for that I would probably place at the feet of director Michael Mann as there is a definite vacuous quality to his films, an absence of emotional center. The only time that he has really been able to avoid that is with Collateral. Here, however, it’s a detriment. Much of the action, for all its excitement, seems superficial and doesn’t allow us any type of audience empathy with the characters the way there is in films like The Godfather or The Untouchables.

That’s too bad, because otherwise the film has a lot going for it. The production design is excellent and the period comes alive in the hands of Nathan Crowley. In addition, the acting is very good. I’m not a fan of Johnny Depp, but he does a nice job here. Christian Bale, who was riveting in 3:10 to Yuma, makes a valiant effort but is unable to lift the proceedings either. The real center of the film turns out to be Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend. An Oscar award-winning actress, she’s captivating on screen and is able to elicit the most audience identification. Public Enemies is by no means a bad film. It’s great as a period piece, and the historical accuracy is impressive; it just fails to connect with audiences in an emotional way and therefore doesn’t live up to its tremendous promise.

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