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July 11, 2009

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Movie Review – Public Enemies (2009)

by HELEN GEIB

Public Enemies (2009)

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.

4 stars


7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nir Shalev
    Jul 11 2009

    Collateral is a really good movie and I also liked Miami Vice because it’s the most realistic undercover cop movie.

    Now I see a 30’s period piece that stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger but… it’s shot with a Sony HD camera.
    I have a theory and it’s that Michael Mann is blind. I understand that HD lacks the gloss and “film” look and feel of film but it has got to stop.

    When watching the trailer in theartes with a digital projection I was aware that the film was shot in 30 frames per second (which is video, and film is 24 fps) and is also shot handheld, which provides the film with a camcorder feel. I personally CAN NOT watch this film solely for that reason. I can not understand how everyone that highly recommends this film doesn’t issue a “shot in HD” warning.

    I am not criticizing the film but the director. Helen, that really didn’t bother you?

  2. Helen
    Jul 26 2009

    The movie doesn’t look cheap. It isn’t ugly either – this is a very handsomely shot film. And it doesn’t have the ‘this was shot with a handheld camera’ jitters that I hate.

    What it looks is different: different from what we expect of a 1930s period piece. Why is it okay to shoot a film set in contemporary Miami or LA in digital, but not to shoot a film set in 1933 Chicago in digital, even though they all are concerned with “public enemies,” cops, and the outlaw mystique? That’s exactly the kind of question “Public Enemies” wants to provoke its audience into asking.

  3. Claus
    Aug 4 2009

    I will have to agree with Nir. I watched the film today and I really liked it, Johnny Depp is so damn good as always, BUT I had SUCH a difficult time with the 30fps! I almost felt it was some mistake from the cinema displaying the movie. I have this button on my TV-remote I sometimes use when a film is on. It makes the TV display 24fps instead of 30fps so that films have the intended feel. I wished I could press that button during this film. It annoyed me so much I had to google it and see if anyone else had any problems with it.

    The problem I have with 30fps is that it seems so “real” – and that’s not meant in a good way at all. It feels like I’m on the set – watching the actors in real life – and that (for me) takes away the magic and purpose of the movies. I don’t need/want to know that Johnny Depp is a real person, acting in some movie, but to believe that the guy I’m watching is John Dillinger and that it’s actually the 1930’s I’m looking at – and I gotta admit that the 30fps kinda ruins that for me.

    My humble opinion.

  4. Helen
    Aug 4 2009

    Thanks for the comment Claus. I get where you guys are coming from. In fact, normally I’d agree with you; I absolutely prefer film from an aesthetic standpoint. My defense of Mann’s choice to film Public Enemies in digital has a very specific basis in what I see as the film’s overriding intellectual scheme: to tell a de-romanticized outlaw biopic grounded in carefully observed social history. In this particular movie, the “real”-ness of digital dovetails neatly with the unconventional narrative choices.

  5. Mike
    Apr 25 2010

    I get what you mean about not feeling like you’re viewing a movie but more experiencing it due to the HD quality, but that’s the exact point. Mann knows what he’s doing and knows the high quality puts you more into the movie, experiencing more of what the characters experience instead of just feeling like you’re watching them. It really gets you that much more into the movie and that’s a very important part of it in my opinion.

    It’s like you’re basically saying if the movie was shot as though it was filmed in the 30’s you’d believe it more, when Mann’s whole idea is to get you into the movie to make it more believable. I get where you’re coming from, but while it may not work for you in this movie I think it’s a huge step for future movies for them to become more of an experience instead of just entertainment.

  6. Nir Shalev
    Apr 26 2010

    The “video” look to movies is an old technique. I believe it started in the 1960’s with the “handheld” movement, simulating the feeling of being in the same room with the characters and not feeling like you’re with the actors. I also like that all great mockumentaries are shot with film (i.e. Blair Witch Project, an Bites Dog, This is Spinal Tap) and I believe that the “makes you feel like you’re there should not be used in a digital format by big Hollywood directors because it would discredit them. Aesthetics are important to the name of famous directors and I remember Public Enemies getting a lot of flack, and even full essays written about the bad use of digital when film would have had better results.
    Film has, technically much better resolution than any digital camera; even the Red Camera, that shoots at 4K resolution makes movies look really sharp but doesn’t contain the depth, quality and “film look of film.

    But as Helen knows, I mostly didn’t like this film because it was a carbon copy of the 1973, superior film Dillinger (which I will review at one point) and contained little to no action and actions.

  7. Claus
    Apr 28 2010

    Hey Mike.
    Very sound arguments and I can totally get where you’re coming from with your opinions, but nevertheless the technique used in this film just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know if it’s that I’m to old fashioned – too scared of changes.. Haha. I don’t know. I just like that good old non-realistic feel to the images. Not that I don’t like the content/the story of the movie to be realistic. I love that. It’s just the distance that a movie-like feel gives that I love. I don’t know. It’s hard to put to words when you don’t know s**t about it. :-) I guess we can agree to disagree!
    Regards

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