Opened July 1st 2009
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, and Ann Biderman
In Michael Mann's newest movie John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) traverses the American mid-west doing what criminals do best: robbing banks and evading the police. In an effort to bring the well-known crook to justice, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is appointed as head of the Chicago FBI office by a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). In the same press announcement, Dillinger is named Public Enemy #1. Amdist the choas Dillinger enters into a romantic relationship with a coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Seemingly among Mann's highest priorities in this biopic was an interest in capturing the frantic chaos that undoubtedly is the experience of being in a shootout. Between quick cuts, explosive lights, and unsteady hand-held cineomatography the auidenice forceably thrown into the crossfire. Like a unfortunate predestrine at the wrong place at the wrong time, all one can do is hit the ground and quietly pray for a quick resolution. Conceptually Mann's approach seems appropriate but he seems to forget that horrendous real-life experiences can only translate to bad cinematic ones. It's not quite bright lights and noise, but it's not much better. The frequency of shootouts doesn't help the film very much either. Curiously in some of these action scenes the rich quality of celluiod seems absent, as though they were shot on an expensive but not quite good enough video camera. The change of quality is apparent, and like a bout of hiccups is temporary but frustrating.
For whatever reason, this choatic style of filmmaking (perhaps it's quintessential Mann, I don't have the experience to comment) is consistent, although less severe throughout the entire film. Quick pans, and handheld shots often make it difficult to focus on the subject. The cinematography is overall erratic and distracting.
The biggest challenge any biopic faces is shinning a light on the individual, or individuals that the film is about. Like a biography, or biographical work of fiction it should give the viewer a fresh and clear idea of that person. Leaving the the theater after seeing Public Enemies, the auidience is really given very little detail on who John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis actually were. There is certainly a narrative with characters, but the historical figures seem somehow lost in it. In the film Dillinger behaves very much like you'd expect someone of his ilk to behave. He's brazen, and attention hungry-- hardly illuminating characteristics.
The unexplored seems evident in Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette. While the film wants the auidence to find their relationship substantial, perhaps touching, there is virtually nothing in the film that builds on the shallow whims that unite them in the beginning. Rather than simply presenting Dillinger's strange sense of loyalty, it would be better to understand where it comes from, and how it survives in a career like his. Melvin Purvis gets worse representation. The text that follows the film, detailing the lives of those involved after the film's end says more about his inner conflicts than the entire film. A vague illusion in one scene of the film, and Bale's attempts at showing the conflicts without script support are really all that's in the film to suggest what what happens to Melvin Purvis after the film ends. This omission is enough to make one wonder further just what might be missing from Dillinger's own story.
The film is capable enough. It's unsurprising, unenlightening, and not particularly moving but it's capable. Somehow it manages to keep attention for the entirity of its one-hundred and forty minute run time, although by the end you'll wonder what it was you spent all of that time watching. If you're compelled to go to the movies, you could certainly do worse.