Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

[This is a contribution to Michael Mann Week currently running at Radiator Heaven from June 28th to July 4th.] Michael Mann's newest film, Public Enemies, confirms what many of us who follow him have long suspected about the director. He is deliberately focused on his larger body of work and how each of his films fits in with the others. Unlike many of cinema's modern auteurs, who seem to move from project to project based on whims or moods—and how deeply a script they happen on strikes their fancy—Mann seems intent on refining the same theme he has been addressing since Thief (1981), and perhaps even earlier. Public Enemies covers the last year of bank robber John Dillinger's life. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) represents an old world, Robin-Hood-style thief who adheres to a certain code. As he tells fellow crook Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), he respects the public, for it is amongst them that he must hide. He tells one bank customer to put his money away as he robs his bank, declaring that he is there for the bank's, not his. But society is evolving, and Dillinger's sentimentality is becoming a liability in this new world. Psychopaths like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) are giving bank robbers a bad name. And nobler thieves like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) are falling to the new generation of law enforcement, G-men like Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Like Thief's Frank (James Caan), and Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat (1995), Dillinger is a bandit who must weigh the importance of his personal relationships against the life of crime that defines him. As Mann has matured his perspective on this subject has evolved from rebellion to resignation. Frank's philosophy on personal attachments—never keep any that you can't walk away from should you be in imminent danger—is one that the young Mann believes in, and approaches rather admiringly at the conclusion of Thief, when Frank is able to robotically detach from his new wife, child, home, and businesses, to confront Leo (Robert Prosky), the gang boss who "holds the paper" on Frank's life. However, an older Mann seems to view things differently by the time he directs Heat. In that film, Neil tells the same story, "A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.'" But when it comes time to put it into practice, Neil finds that he can't just walk away from his obligations. At great personal risk to himself, he decides to go after someone who betrayed him, even when faced with the knowledge that he will most certainly walk right into the hands of his pursuer. Mann's thinking on this has changed even further in the 14 years since Heat's release. Their is a certain doom that hangs over Public Enemies, a sense of predestination that lingers over the character of Dillinger. Though Dante Spinotti shoots in some of the grittiest high-definition clarity yet for a Mann film, the film has a lyrical quality that adds to this—best demonstrated in the scene where Dillinger walks into the Chicago Police Department's Dillinger squad room. Here the room is hauntingly vacant—the cops all out in force looking for their quarry—save for the photographs of Dillinger's associates, all stamped DECEASED, lining the bulletin boards throughout the room. Red (Jason Clarke) warns Dillinger that their time is up, moments before he is shot. As he lays dying, he advises Dillinger to let him go, let his girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) go, let everything go and run—like Frank and Neil were also advised to do in Mann's earlier films. Yet Dillinger doesn't even entertain the notion, demonstrating the more mature Mann's new outlook that breaking off personal ties is not nearly as easy as Frank made it look in Thief. In fact, to move so dispassionately through life may ultimately prove to be one's undoing, as implied through the character of Dillinger's opposite, Melvin Purvis. Like in Heat, where Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) served as both antagonist and doppelganger to Neil, Bale's Purvis mirrors Dillinger. They meet face to face but once in the film, where Dillinger assures Purvis with no small amount of swagger that he has become more inured to the loss of his comrades than Purvis will ever be to the loss of his officers in the line of duty. Bale's expression when he turns his back to Depp reveals that, for Purvis, this is quite true. His single-mindedness in the pursuit of Dillinger recalls that of Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) in pursuit of gang boss Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) in Mann's Crime Story (1986-88). But unlike with Torello or Hanna, Mann implies that Purvis—a strong and disciplined officer—is only human in his inability to walk away from the pain. The title card at the end of Public Enemies sadly reveals that Purvis died by his own hand in 1960. Michael Mann's Public Enemies is a summation of a filmography that has often explored the noble man's ability/inability to dissociate from his personal attachments when threatened. So it is perhaps fitting that Mann bookends the movie with closeups of two notable character actors that have contributed to his oeuvre, James Russo (Miami Vice, Crime Story) and Stephen Lang (Manhunter, Crime Story). Russo plays Walter Dietrich, a man that in many ways "created" Dillinger, tutoring him on how to attain success as a bank robber. And Lang portrays Charles Winstead, the old Texas lawman who killed Dillinger with a shot through the face. Both play honorable men, yet in different circumstances, whose time of sentiment, nobility, and personal codes of honor are quickly coming to an end. And Mann's Public Enemies asserts that our society is diminished by their extinction.


Unknown said...

Great review! I just saw it today and came to many of the conclusions you did. In many respects, this film parallels HEAT - the cop vs. the robber, each have their own professional code of conduct, the two leads only meet face-to-face once, the climactic shoot-out that results in several key crew members on both sides to die or are gravely wounded, the inevitability of the demise of the protagonist at the hands of his pursuer (well, Purvis didn't actually get the killing shot but he set it up), and so on. But PUBLIC ENEMIES isn't a carbon copy of HEAT and deviates in some fascinating ways.

You write:

"As he lays dying, he advises Dillinger to let him go, let his girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) go, let everything go and run—like Frank and Neil were also advised to do in Mann's earlier films."

Well said! You really tied PE into many of Mann's other films and as I watched this new film I kept thinking, as it looks like you did, how well this film and its themes dovetail into his other films. You can really see what drew Mann to this material. It was a natural fit.

Awesome review. I'm posting mine tomorrow.

Tony Dayoub said...


Feel free to host this article at your site, if you wish. I tried finding an email to send it to you, but couldn't see where you might have an address posted.

Unknown said...

Thanks! Yeah, I linked your review onto the ongoing blogroll.

Ryan McNeil said...

They meet face to face but once in the film, where Dillinger assures Purvis with no small amount of swagger that he has become more inured to the loss of his comrades than Purvis will ever be to the loss of his officers in the line of duty. Bale's expression when he turns his back to Depp reveals that, for Purvis, this is quite true.

For me, this is where the film really started to pick up. It felt like everything leading up to this point was the movie getting into gear, and this is when it finally put the pedal to the floor.

I love scenes like this, where the cop and crook talk for one brief moment like civilized generals meeting as gentlemen during a ceasefire.

Great review!

tsandaal said...

Dave: I actually went and saw this movie, partly on your recommendation, mostly on my love of Mann's previous work. I thought it blew for the exact reasons you expressed in your exceptional review.

You helped me understand how it fits into Mann's body of work, but that is probably why I hated it so much. It was like watching a less compelling version of Heat. The dialogue was painfully cliche, the robin hood nature of Dillinger was absent of any nuance or layer that would give me pause to reconsider the archetype.

My favorite performances were Ribisi's and Crudup(I think) as Hoover. Bale stripped his 3:10 to Yuma character into something unwatchable. Depp was in and out for me. . . Help me like this movie, bro.

Tony Dayoub said...

Supetube (BTW, you have to explain that moniker to me),

I recommend Matt Zoller Seitz's review to get another perspective.

If you're still not convinced, get back to me. I want you to like this movie, too.

tsandaal said...

Dave: Not convinced. I would go as far as saying that you and this other critic are Mann-apologists! The first three or four paragraphs in which he identifies all of the issues with the film is exactly where I'm at with it. I love the label Minor-mann; it fits perfectly.

I do agree that minor-Mann is better than most anything else I get to see. Some of his shots linger: the exhausted breath in the shootout in Idaho, the interrogation of Dillinger's moll. I just do not see a point to the movie at all. Perhaps it is because I am so in love with Heat and Neil's crew that I can't see the value of this film. Each of the members of that crew had depth. It was cool to see them navigate their world, both the intensity of their "jobs" and the normalcy of their family lives. In Public Enemies, that duality is revisited as a more hackneyed version.

Let's compare the love interests. Neil's girlfriend, her loneliness is palpable, her attraction to Neil nuanced and complex. Perhaps it is function of the source material, the historical context but Dillinger's girl, strikes me as a stereotype. I can continue on but I don't recall enough of the film to speak about it with the lucidity you professional critics possess. I remain interested in hearing from you further if you have the time.

As for the supetube, sort of a surf moniker: short for Super Tubes, a wave in North LA County, and also a section of the wave at Jeffrey's Bay, South Africa. I think I took it on because I was going to blog about surfing way back when.


Tony Dayoub said...


I think what I've discovered about Mann's films (and PE was the first in which I was hyperaware before I entered the theater so it helped in digesting the film) is that my knee-jerk reaction is to see them as technically accomplished but strangely hollow. Over time, and on second viewing, the vacancy I feel in the stories somehow get filled in with things I've somehow worked out in my own mind since the first viewing. Every movie I've ever seen of his just gets better and better the more I see it.

It's something I first got a hint of after seeing Ali a second time, then Collateral, but it really hit home with Miami Vice where I realized, to put it in literary terms that you might relate to, that it was a kind of filmic tone poem: sketchy, elliptical, subdued, but nonetheless beautiful.

I think he went through a phase in his career where he really aimed for density in his scripts, like in Heat, The Insider, and less successfully, in Ali which may have put him off this altogether. Now, he seems to be aiming for poetry and simplicity. So again, going back to the literary metaphor, he may have had a following based on his work as a cinematic novelist (his series Crime Story was also extremely dense) and this following, of which you may or may not be part of, isn't interested in his newfound exploration of cinematic poetry.

Public Enemies is a movie where you are expected to fill in some major blanks. I don't think it means the film is a major blank. I have a feeling weeks or months later, if you give it a chance again, you'll feel differently about the film.

The only advantage I'd say I have over you is that I caught onto this quality of his work earlier simply because I've got more time to focus on his films than you. But if I'm right, and you do come around to this mode of thinking, I don't think you'll ever see one of his movies the same way again.

P.S. On a very basic level, there are some that say that films stopped being truly cinematic when sound was introduced into the mix. Can you believe that? Someone denying everything after silents to be cinema? While I don't subscribe to this, I do see what they're getting at.

There is a satisfaction of sorts in being able to see a movie, and being able to coherently follow the plot even if the sound is off. There's nothing immature about it (one wouldn't be able to do the same with a Transformers movie, for instance). There's something elegant about it.