Saturday, September 12, 2009

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)

Robber soul

Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009), his epic production on the life of legendary bank-robber John Herbert Dillinger, is a cold fish of a movie. You get little of Dillinger's early career--we see his escape with friends from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, actually two separate episodes (his friends broke out, then facilitated his own getaway) combined, presumably to help condense the story. You get little sense of who Dillinger was as a person, a gang leader, a lover. Dramawise the movie's inert, a series of excitingly made setpieces strung together and shot (by longtime collaborator Dante Spinotti) on high-definition digital video--a lot of flash, no discernable heartbeat.

But looking for heart in recent Mann films is beside the point, I think; Mann has different if not bigger fish to fry. Critics have complained that Mann's latest has no foreground, no compelling character dominating the landscape whose motives define the film's conflict; I would argue that, as with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, the characters' attempt--and subsequent failure--to dominate that landscape IS the film's conflict (more on this later). Mann gives this much concession to conventional expectations and to the moneybags financing this film, that he casts a bona fide Hollywood star (Johnny Depp), but Depp often pursues his own agenda (look at how he hijacked Pirates of the Caribbean and, perversely, turned it into a bigger hit than even the producers anticipated) and is a habitual risk-taker. A Mann film, especially one with its priorities so bewilderingly upside-down, would be the kind of project he would find hard to resist.

Public Enemies is nothing if not a film of landscapes, not so much about countryside as about an entire country. The film's setting is '30s America in the grip of an economic downturn, and early on we see Dillinger stopped by a woman clutching his arm. "Take me with you," the woman pleads softly. Dillinger just as softly turns her down, turns away; the camera lingers on the faded woman, her skinny child, the dilapidated house looming behind her. It's visual poetry of the highest order, and its brief onscreen appearance haunts our viewing experience of the rest of the picture--the rest of the evening, in my case and several evenings after. "This," the film seems to whisper, "is the Great Depression, nor are we out of it."

Mann fills in other details in his complex extended metaphor: the creation of counterterrorist techniques by an embryonic Federal Bureau of Investigation headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, who wittily plays Hoover as an anal-retentive publicity-hungry politician). Phone wiretaps, brutal interrogations--Mann's conceit is that the hunt for Dillinger inspired the use of these measures, much as the hunt for terrorists has resurrected their use today. Mind you, the FBI was not the first American organization to use the technique--waterboarding was used on Filipino insurgents (freedom fighters to us) at the beginning of the 20th century, when the country was a freshly acquired American colony--but it was possibly the FBI that brought these techniques home, for use on American (as opposed to foreign) prisoners.

Deeper in the background is the development of an information network of sorts. Dillinger walks in on a startling scene--hundreds of operators taking bets on the phone, wires snaking up from their hands to an unseen web overhead. Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) owns this operation, and his lieutenant informs Dillinger that this is the future, this data exchange--where the bank robber once considered a vault filled with over seventy thousand dollars a good haul, Nitti's bookmakers can make that amount in a single day. Crime has stopped being a boutique endeavor--a small group of professionals victimizing mostly the rich--and established itself as a corporate enterprise, complete with departments and accountants and political lobbyists. Dillinger doesn't admit it (even if you see the recognition in his eyes), but he is obsolete.

Meantime he's alive and robbing, and Mann in his own deadpan way celebrates Dillinger's due diligence, the elegance with which he goes about his business. The real Dillinger may not be so efficient, but Depp's Dillinger joins a long line of hardworking Mann men, from Sonny Crockett to Vincent to Neil McCauley (one might title his entire filmography Men at Work; Men at Work 2; Men at Work 3; and so on), his heroes more comfortable talking to co-worker than family, more at ease mounting quasi-military operations either for or against the law than sitting on a living-room sofa, watching television while the wife prepares dinner. Mann films are extremely physical, full of forward motion; a pause for breath or, worse, commonplace exposition would not just kill the momentum, it would lessen the drama, the mystery of relentless physical movement.

Mann's choice of Depp is, I think a daring one; I would have thought Christian Bale (who plays Melvin Purvis) the more obvious choice for tommy-gun sociopath, with the more thoughtful-looking Depp as federal agent. Casting the two against type creates interesting dynamics, though--suddenly Purvis is the relentless hunter, near psychopathic in the intensity of his desire to capture Dillinger; suddenly Dillinger is a more thoughtful, more melancholic quarry, with weary eyes looking about all sides for the danger he knows is coming. I've never considered Depp to be particularly dangerous-looking but in the occasional feral grin spotted here, there, in the Pirates movies; in his chilling turn as a CIA agent in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003); in his recent turn as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; in this film, he's built up an impressive resume of cold-blooded killers.

Dillinger acts out dark, socially unacceptable wishes, striking banks where they would hurt most (their vaults, of course). Mann acknowledges this facet of the Dillinger myth with his robberies, the banks architecturally imposing cathedrals with soaring ceilings, vast marble floors, dark railings that divide bank staff from common customers--Dillinger vaults the railings with gazelle-like grace (he was nicknamed "The Jackrabbit" for his ability to jump), violating the institutionally imposed divide between rich and poor. Banks were the villains in Depression America, remain the villains in America today; Mann's Dillinger in the way he jumps about exults in exacting revenge on these villains, these malevolent financial angels holding fiery swords over heavily mortgaged houses.

Salon Magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek dismisses any notions of parallelism to our present-day situation with the thought that there is no direct modern equivalent to Dillinger, no outlaw rebel bringing the high and mighty to their knees (however superficially and temporarily, if publicly). I submit that there are parallels, only Mann's Dillinger has to take on the double role of acting out the fantasies of both '30s audiences and our own. No, we don't have a Dillinger; all the more reason to appreciate Mann's attempt to bring him into hurtling, leaping life for us.

First published in Businessworld, 7.24.09

9 comments:

Marianne said...

GREEAAAT review.

Wow Gold said...
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Wow Gold said...
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DKL said...

One of the things I really liked in the movie was Mann's emphasis on making the tactics used come across as realistic.

Whereas people just run around and shoot tommy guns in old movies like, say, Howard Hawke's Scarface movie [though, I may need to see it again, but there doesn't seem to be too much emphasis on tactical cohesion], Mann gets you really deep and dirty in what were likely used as real tactics.

For example, during the excellent firefight in the hotel in the forest, notice how Dilligner and his partener roll in and out of cover when returning fire; there's a logical reasoning as to WHY these men have survived in bank robbing business as long as they have.

Also, I like how, despite the antiquated setting of the movie, the tactics that Purvis and the FBI uses actually does come across as cutting-edge; listening to phone conversations on vinyl seems to be more interesting than it should be.

Even the thing with Dilligner's coat and how they used it to narrow his location down is an impressive detail, not only because it's an interesting detail, but because it gives insight into what was considered to be high-end sleuthing during that time-period; little things like that speak volumes.

In general, Mann does a really good job of making police tactics and whatever really sexy and interesting; I remember the part in Manhunter [the original version of Brett Rattner's The Red Dragon, which I've not seen yet, actually] where they had to analyze a letter from the tooth fairy and it was such an interesting sequence by virtue of how quickly and professionally people worked (a lot of credit goes to the actors who conveyed this sense of professionalism very convincingly).

Talking about professionalism, just look at how Christian Bale handles his rifle at the beginning of the movie; it's amazing.

Anyway, really, Public Enemies was totally worth watching for the emphasis on police tactics alone (though, not a lot of people will think this... in fact, a lot of people I talked to said that the movie was boring, which I find disappointing consider how rife with weighty content the movie was).

Good review thingy; I liked the comment about the angel holding a sword over houses, in particular.

Also, the sets are so sexy; goddamn; I don't think I've ever been so impressed at looking at a bank vault as I was with this movie.

Noel Vera said...

The COPS photography in a period setting is interesting too, isn't it?

Hawks is the original procedural director; Mann probably was inspired by him.

In Scarface, he notes the entrance of the submachine gun (Tony Manero's all for it), and when Manero introduces his defences, it's only to find out that those very safety devices would insure that the people he cared for WOULD get hurt. Irony, with iron panelling.

Tactics aren't emphasized too much, but the gun battles do have this incredible shape to them. You check out all the hidden X's throughout the picture (it's like looking for hidden Mickeys), while Scarface himself has an X on his cheeck, a living, walking doublecross. Plus those long tracking and rising shots. It's got a style like no other.

I know gnagstas and rappers love De Palma's remake, but this is the true no-fat, no bullshit gangsta movie. light and fast on its feet.

DKL said...

Oh yeah, Scorsese talked about that:

Everytime someone gets killed in Scarface, there'd be an "X" somewhere in the frame.

Scorsese reproduced this for "The Departed" (and the notion of the double-cross makes sense within the context of that movie).

Also, yeah, I like Hawk's movie better; it was REALLY cool and those gunfights and car chases were great (though, Tony kinda turns into the biggest bitch in the ending... but I think that was the point)...

Al Pacino was still cool in the remake though, have to admit.

Noel Vera said...

Hawks did more with less, he did it first, and he did it in under ninety minutes.

De Palma's version is okay. He takes his ending not from Hawks, but from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

Jesús Cortés said...

I prefer De Palma´s to Hawks´ and infinetly both of them (and there´s a very thin relation and quite different purposes) to overrated Mann´s, which is a good film anyway. Only a good film.

Noel Vera said...

Hm. If I prefer Mann to De Palma nowadays it's because I think I like the direction he's going in at the moment, the kind of projects he wants to make and the style he's developing.

De Palma over Hawks? Blasphemy! Well, I strongly disagree anyway (I don't think it's De Palma's best work, either).

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