Wednesday, July 1, 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.