Movie Review – Public Enemies (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Public Enemies is foremost a biopic of John Dillinger, public enemy no. 1 at the height of his short, notorious career as a professional bank robber. As biopic the film is an impressionistic survey of the last year of Dillinger’s life. The last year was the big one, the year that made him a Depression-era folk hero, made him the subject of a nationwide manhunt, and ultimately got him killed – gunned down by federal agents on the sidewalk outside Chicago’s Biograph movie theater.
This is a picture of the times as well as the life. A host of public enemies cross paths with Dillinger and his criminal associates, or contribute to shaping the cultural climate that made him a celebrity. There is trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson and his gang; the banks; the Chicago mob, hostile to Dillinger’s brand of attention-getting, individualistic criminal enterprise; corrupt police; J. Edgar Hoover, a political animal who orders his subordinates to use harassment and beatings to get information; spirit-crushing rural poverty.
The “Dillinger story” is located at the intersection of art and life. Dillinger’s public persona influenced popular culture and was influenced by it. His celebrity was media-driven and he, media-savvy, contributed to the image-making. A movie fan himself, in life and death he was an inspiration for Hollywood movie-making. A degree of conventionality is inescapable in a biopic of Dillinger; fact is source and mirror of outlaw-hero genre conventions.
The film’s biography picks up on this idea in exploring the tension between reality and artifice in Dillinger’s life. There is a clear contrast between what might be termed the natural Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the attitude he adopts when playing the role of public enemy. The first dominates when he’s alone, working, and with his lover Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) or his close criminal associates. The attitude comes to the fore in an interview with the press, facing down mobsters and cops, and for the occasion of a highly charged conversation with Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the federal agent tasked with bringing him down. Though distinct, the private person and public persona can blend together; each contains aspects of the other.
Less overtly, the direction by Michael Mann and script by Mann, Roman Bennett, and Ann Biderman (based on a non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough) work against conventionality in a number of ways. One is by omission. The film reveals very little about Dillinger’s life before he took up robbing banks. He and Frechette trade some biographical facts when they meet and a few pieces of information about Dillinger’s criminal record are dropped here and there, but that’s about it. Not even that much is given on Purvis or Dillinger’s associates and the other supporting characters. We learn next to nothing about the biopic’s subject and his girl and nothing about anyone else except the pieces we’re shown of that one big year and what we can infer from what we’ve seen.
The job is the thing. For Dillinger and his gang life is robbing a bank, hiding out afterward, planning the next job, dreaming of the big score. Being Dillinger’s girl is a full-time job. Putting an end to Dillinger’s front-page exploits is everything to Purvis and his agents. This works simultaneously as a comment on American culture’s identification of the person with the profession and as a reminder that what endures in the public memory is the legend, not the complex, messy, ambiguous, contested truth. Dillinger robbed banks; Frechette was his moll; and Purvis puts a face on the G-men arrayed against Dillinger and his criminal brethren. What more have we ever wanted to know?
Hollywood’s artists and craftsmen have worked their magic once again in the production design, costumes, and other aspects of Public Enemies’s physical reconstruction of the setting, with an invaluable assist from on-location shooting in Chicago and northern Indiana. But while the period re-creation is as exemplary as expected from a major studio film, Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti buck conventionality by filming to emphasize the quotidian. The digital photography is effectively used to take the gloss off; the camera reveals lined faces, seedy apartments, unremarkable streetscapes. The visual design de-glamorizes without swinging to the familiar grittiness (whether genuine or carefully replicated) at the opposite end of the spectrum. The past is made to seem ordinary, just like it seemed to the people for whom it was the present.
Public Enemies’s pleasures are not exclusively intellectual. Through script, performances, and direction, the film uses actions and personality to draw vivid character portraits of Dillinger, Frechette, and Purvis. Depp’s performance is tremendous. His Dillinger is charismatic and personable, a skilled and ruthless professional criminal, an attentive lover within the limits of his self-absorption, fundamentally unstable. The quiet intensity of Bale’s performance matches that of Depp’s, without Dillinger’s flash; Purvis’s stolidity imperfectly masks the gradual erosion of decency in the company man. The scenes of violence are powerful, thrilling, disquieting. The music is excellent.