“My name’s John Dillinger. I rob banks.”
This is the phrase that has been used endlessly in the advertisement campaign of this movie. It was also this phrase that I sought to understand during the film. After all, this would not be the first film that would have attempted to romanticize an outlaw. Such ideas have been the norm since the days of Bonnie and Clyde. But why? Such people disconnected from society may sound great in history books, but ultimately they are thieves. Why are their lives so glamorized? Ultimately we know what their fates will be. That fact alone is ultimately a large reason I cannot accept many aspects of this genre. Let me put it more succinctly: Martin Scorsese got it right with Goodfellas, Arthur Penn ultimately got it wrong in Bonnie and Clyde. I was worried Public Enemies would fall into the latter category.
Frankly, the ad campaign did not do its job in describing the film. The ad campaign is what seeks to romanticize Dillinger; the film seeks to do something else entirely. It is not an action film, it is a sort of Greek tragedy in which Dillinger is destroyed by his inability to adapt to the times. When he is destroyed (I am not worried about revealing that. I feel calling such a thing a spoiler would be to admit that one knows nothing of American History) he is completely alone and already the last of a dying breed.
The film follows the last year of Dillinger’s bank robbing spree during the Great Depression. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) escapes from prison again to continue his spree of bank robberies. He also meets a woman, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) who accompanies him on his cross country crimes (though not as a Bonnie). Dillinger becomes so powerful, he forces J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to put together a new task force lead by Melvin Purvis (Christain Bale) to capture him. With all the interferences from the FBI, the people that Dillinger worked for slowly abandon him.
Let’s go back to the context of that line in the film. Dillinger does not say it as a statement of creed. It is said to try and impress Billie. She doesn’t know how to react to the statement: “Why would you tell me that?” This is not trying to show Dillinger as a romantic figure. This is trying to show Dillinger showing himself as a romantic figure. He is attempting to impress people with his actions. When that fails, Dillinger realizes exactly what he is: a living time capsule.
Depp encompasses this well. In the same way there is only one John Dillinger, there is only one Johnny Depp. He plays Dillinger in exactly the fashion that the film calls for. He tries to talk like an old Hollywood actor. The film mentions both Cagney and Gable. Stick Dillinger in front of a camera and he seems at home. Anywhere else and he barely moves at all. It is the perfect method. Will this finally get Depp a long deserved Oscar? I doubt it; there would be no reason for them to notice him now.
The same goes for the other gangsters, particularly George “Baby Face” Nelson. The audience treated the character as though he was great comic relief. And I Can understand this. The Coen brothers had used the man for exactly that end previously. But what about here? It still plays into that theme. “Baby Face” acts as though he is comic relief-a sort of Sancho Panza to Dillinger’s Quixote. He is as much a part of Dillinger’s illusion as any other character.
One other item that must be addressed: the use of digital photography. Mann has used it before, and achieved excellent ends (Collateral) and very terrible ends (the film adaptation of Miami Vice). Sometimes it helps create an incredible atmosphere. Sometimes it makes a film that looks unpleasant. I was worried that this would make the film look too modern, something that would have destroyed the period. This isn’t the case; the cinematography is top notch. The film puts the viewer as close as possible to the characters, to the point where it is possible to see the beads of sweat glistening on their heads. So what, you may ask. Well, this helps humanize the characters. We can see them doing things that actual people cope with in reality. In some cases, films gloss over this reality. This makes them compelling characters, but not compelling people. Michael Mann, I am sorry for having doubted your decision.
This film will likely end up on my top ten list at the end of the year. This gots tossed around a lot, but Mann actually made John Dillinger come to life. At a time when the Transformers sequel is at the top of the box office, this is more than a breath of fresh air. This film is a downright splash of Holy Water.