Thursday, July 16, 2009

Public Enemies

Somehow I walked into this movie without knowing (or perhaps not remembering) who directed it. I was attracted to it by its inclusion of Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as his pursuer, Melvin Purvis, and what appeared to be some gorgeous cinematography in the trailers. After the movie ended, I wasn't surprised to see that Michael Mann directed the movie, since it contains so many of his little touches.

Johnny Depp once again throws himself into his character and is solid as Dillinger. He's not given much opportunity to chew the scenery as he does in most of his recent movies, but he seems totally immersed which proves a better showcase for his acting ability. Dillinger proves to be enigmatic, a gentleman robber at times—clearly a folk hero to some—and utterly ruthless when angry. His relationship with Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard) can be seen similarly; as Dillinger woos Billie, he is simultaneously touching in his belief that they will be together and somewhat terrifying as he comes close to stalking her. Depp plays these mood swings without a trace of irony with the result that Dillinger becomes a terribly smart force of nature, difficult to predict but usually exciting to behold.

Christian Bale's Purvis is not given nearly as much screen time as Dillinger. Mostly he serves as the focus point for the efforts to capture Dillinger, acting as a hard-working government agent following orders. But the film forces the viewer to compare these two men, and while they would seem to be different men, they have several similar traits that the movie takes advantage of. It takes a little bit more to make Purvis lose his cool, but when he does, he's just as deadly and unpredictable as Dillinger. Unfortunately what pushes Purvis the most are the failures of the forces of law in their pursuit of criminals. Blowing an arrest sends him into a rage as the gangster drives away. But unlike Dillinger, Purvis has nearly limitless resources and is able to use his unhappiness to force changes in the methods of law enforcement.

Dillinger and Purvis are also men caught on the cusp of changing times. Purvis is a member of the Bureau of Investigation, a nationwide network of law enforcement that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) wants to legitimize and formalize. As a member of this team, Purvis has access to the latest in law enforcement gear, including wire-tapping. Hoover's directions seems to be enforcing the law at any cost, and some of the methods that he uses do not appeal to Purvis's sense of right—arresting the family of suspects makes him uneasy, though he gives in to it. But when Billie is arrested and basically tortured for information about Dillinger, Purvis makes it clear to his men that they don't work in that way. And again, since he has far greater resources than Dillinger, he can adjust to the changes. Dillinger on the other hand is cut off from his resources. Although a good strategist, he still needs access to doctors, suppliers, and money launderers for his string of robberies to succeed. The criminal underground is well established with a framework provided by the mob, but the mob is beginning to move their focus to gambling. There is a wonderful scene where Dillinger storms into a gang headquarters to find out why he is unable to get any help, only to find a bookie den, with dozens of men answering phones and taking bets while the local capo gives Dillinger a lecture in economics. It's clear that the nearly deified bank robbers who have a cult of personality are going to have to survive on their own.

The cinematography that I admired in the trailers turns out to be something of a mixed bag. The film is lovingly crafted; the attention to detail is wonderful, and the viewer feels like a member of the society of 1930s Chicago. The soundtrack is made up of the music of the time, more fully immersing the viewer in the setting. However, this detail is offset by the introduction of a new technology, the handheld camera or, as I like to refer to it, the "shakycam." I understand the artistic merit of using the shaky frame popularized in the recent Bourne movies when there is action o the screen—chase scenes or shootouts make sense. But I'm at a loss as to why it is necessary for quiet moments, such as conversations in a restaurant. Most of the movie appears to have been shot with this technique and it really does distract from the movie itself (it's ironic that there was such a hue and cry over the use of this in Cloverfield, for which it made sense, but I'm hearing very little about its use in Public Enemies where it often makes no sense at all). The sets and the atmosphere are often gorgeous, even in the bleakness of homes in the Depression, but often it is ruined by the shakycam.

I really enjoyed the movie, shakycam notwithstanding. It feels so historically accurate that it prompted me to find out more about Dillinger's life. As expected, the story appears to be true mostly in broad swathes, but the details are often wrong. And it is a long movie—there were a few times I wondered how much further it was going to go, but not in any sort of sense of boredom, but uncertainty about what point in Dillinger's life we had reached and how the lushness of the film was going to come to an end. The one thing that the length of the movie did not offer up, which is why the revelation that the director was Michael Mann was obvious to me, is that like his wonderful movie Heat, there is only one scene in which Dillinger and Purvis appear together. Purvis looks in on Dillinger in a jail cell after he has been arrested in Phoenix and they have a very short interaction (I nearly said "conversation" but that would imply both taking part in it). Dillinger taunts Purvis and tells him that he is going to escape. It is an iconic moment in the portrayal of these two men: Dillinger is brash and gregarious, even behind bars, while Purvis calmly looks on without much response. It's obvious that the plot of the movie can't allow the two men to interact more than this, but it still makes the movie seem just a little lacking—you really do want to see the two of them act together.

Public Enemies is a fine film, one that should get some notice come Oscar time. I think over time it will be remembered much like Heat—an interesting story told well—and as something of a period piece. I would definitely recommend seeing it on a digital screen, as big as you can, because it will lose some elements when viewed on television or even in the smaller movie houses.

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