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