BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 2, 2009
It's taken countless hours of TV crime-drama ("Crime Story," "Miami Vice") and nearly a dozen feature films (Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice again), but in John Dillinger, Michael Mann may finally have found an ideal vessel for his particular vision of masculine cool: stylish, charismatic, unflappable, adept at violence but not hungry for it.
After spending nine years in prison for his rookie robbery (a grocery-store heist that allegedly netted him $50), Dillinger emerged in May 1933 to launch perhaps the most storied crime spree in American history. Over the subsequent 14 months, he was involved in three daring prison breaks, dozens of bank robberies, the theft of weaponry from multiple police stations, and the deaths of several law enforcement agents. In 1934, the FBI reportedly spent a third of its entire budget trying to apprehend him. He was as famous as FDR and Charles Lindbergh--and, by most accounts, more popular than either. If John Dillinger had not existed, in other words, Michael Mann would have had to invent him.
Loosely based on Bryan Burrough's book, Mann's Public Enemies takes plenty of historical liberties. The prison break that opens the film is an amalgam of two separate escapes, for instance, and while contemporaries Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) pre-decease Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in the film, in reality the FBI ushered him to the other side before it did them. But the bones of the story are all here, and Mann buffs them to a characteristic polish.
Depp is sly and magnetic, playing Dillinger as a man of casual irony in an era not yet accustomed to it. When his squeeze-to-be Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) reveals her Native-American ancestry, noting that "most men don't like it," Dillinger is succinct: "I'm not most men." Later, when she protests she doesn't know him, he explains, "I like baseball, movies, nice clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else do you need to know?" His grandiose boasts are also self-deprecations: He knows he's a showoff, and he needs her to know that he knows.
In classic form, though, Dillinger's true life partner is not Billie, but the G-man sworn to hunt him down, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the yang to his yin. Though characteristically closed off, Bale's performance is nonetheless effective. For once he does not try to overwhelm us with the intensity of his craft but instead allows the film to come to him. In contrast to the exuberant Dillinger, we're given no sign that Purvis enjoys his life outside of work, or, indeed, that he has one. Instead, he boasts of the FBI's modern, "scientific" techniques as he rallies the embryonic army of J. Edgar Hoover behind him. Having earlier this summer played last-hope-for-humanity John Connor in Terminator: Salvation, Bale finds himself this time on the side of the Machine--and frankly it suits him.
If Depp and Bale provide enough masculine good looks for a spring catalogue, it may be a lucky thing. The rest of the cast is made up mostly of men with thick faces and big hands, a Midwestern menagerie of the swollen and surly. One of the best scenes in the film takes place after Purvis informs Hoover (Billy Crudup, feigning jowls) that the handsome young college graduates whom the latter favors for the Bureau are not up to the task of apprehending killers. In response, Hoover sends him, from Texas and Oklahoma, a handful of hardened mugs, in the most literal sense of the term. We see them arrive on a train, and it's scarcely an exaggeration to note that their faces could have stopped it. (Among them is Agent Winstead, played by Actor's Studio co-artistic director Stephen Lang, who mesmerizes in the small but crucial role.)
The robbers and the cops hopscotch their way across flyover country--Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, South Dakota--with brief jaunts to Miami and Tucson. They cross paths frequently, and when they do, the encounters inevitably prove lethal. Mann's direction of these sequences is crisp, fluid, and blessedly devoid of the ADHD editing so much in vogue these days. If there is a complaint to be made, it is that the film provides too much of a good thing: Gunfire is exchanged on daylight streets and in moonlit forests, from doorways and second-floor windows, between careening automobiles. By its conclusion, Public Enemies may have exhausted not only your appetite for the rat-a-tat-tat of Tommy Guns, but also for anything even resembling that staccato beat: corn popping, tap dancing, you name it. I, at least, could have done with one fewer shootout--but then, so, too, could have John Dillinger.
A deeper problem is depth--or, rather, the lack of it. Mann is an exceptional surveyor of surfaces--the glinting chrome of getaway cars, the dark steel of the Thompson, the smart suits and period sunglasses and Deppish cheekbones--but he declines to pry beneath. His Dillinger has no backstory, no subtext, no real psychology, and while this is in some ways a relief (we're spared, for instance, the tedious Freudian lessons about absent parents that characterized The Aviator), it is also a limitation. What happened to Dillinger in prison that turned a petty thief into perhaps the most famous criminal of the century? Where is the avowed bitterness and rage that drove him to his deadly exploits? In another movie, evidently. In this one, he is merely the Dillinger of popular myth, the handsome charmer out to have a good time--and, while baseball and movies may be affordable, those nice clothes and fast cars require the kind of money you can only find in a bank.
Other themes, as well, are glossed without being enriched. Now would have been an interesting moment, for instance, to unpack Dillinger the Depression-era folk hero, whose popularity owed much to the fact that his most conspicuous victims were the very institutions that were busily foreclosing on homes and farms across the country. But apart from an onscreen announcement at the opening of the film, Mann offers very little sign that the Depression has even taken place. The director merely hints, too, at the idea that Dillinger and his ilk were squeezed out by the rise in his chosen profession of economies of scale, his anarchic criminal individualism caught between the expanding reach of the mob syndicates and the growing power of the Feds. But Mann is not by temperament a philosophical, or even psychological, director: He doesn't much care why Dillinger did what he did, or what it meant for the country, as long as he looked good while doing it.
In accordance with this appreciation of the cinematic, the one thread that Mann does repeatedly tug is the link between the celebrity criminals and their Hollywood cousins. Early on, when one of Dillinger's hoods tells a bank teller they've taken hostage, "You know, when I'm not doing this, I'm a scout for the movies," she believes him. And why not? These "public enemies" are also public stars. In one scene, Dillinger is at the movies when the opening newsreel flashes his portrait and instructs audience members to scan the theater to make sure the wanted man isn't present--a personal transcendence of onscreen and off. And, of course, there is that final night, at the Biograph Theater, when one of the last things his living eyes behold is the Clark Gable gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama, a film whose parallels with Dillinger's own story Mann is not shy to highlight. (In their very next movie, The Thin Man, released just weeks later, stars William Powell and Myrna Loy and director W.S. Van Dyke would team again to domesticate the world of crime, offering the cool without the carnage.)
Moments after the curtains fall at the Biograph, it's curtains, too, for Dillinger: What better way to conclude a movie about outlaw glamour? Public Enemies is a sharp, diverting entertainment but it is not, in the end, a particularly rich or memorable one. It's more than enough, though, for these hazy days of summer. Or, as Dillinger himself reminds a fretting gang member, "We're having a good time today. We ain't thinking about the future."
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.