The country is in the grip of an economic depression. Banks have lost fortunes. Criminals run amok, with sharp-dressed men preying on the weaknesses of financial institutions. Inept Feds are seemingly helpless to combat the crime wave. The Bernard Madoff story? There will, no doubt be movies made about Madoff's crimes, but Public Enemies looks back, with a small measure of ambivalent admiration, at the life and crimes of John Dillinger. Madoff is unlikely to be treated as kindly by history.
Dillinger was once known as Public Enemy Number One, and as portrayed by Johnny Depp, he was a suave, smart, courtly criminal who was savvy about maintaining his public image. He robbed banks, which made him a Robin Hood of sorts to Depression era Americans who didn't mind seeing the robber barons robbed for a change. The press made him a celebrity, along with other gangsters of the time, like Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, some of whom also turn up in Public Enemies.
The movie opens in 1933 with a bold, efficiently choreographed jailbreak in which Dillinger busts his gang out of the Indiana State Pen. One man diverges from the plan, another is killed. Dillinger, it is immediately apparent, is loyal to his friends, but also unforgiving and ruthless. A little more is learned about Dillinger in the film, but not a lot -- he himself sums up his life in only a few sentences when seducing girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Public Enemies follows a year in the life of John Dillinger -- the last, eventful year of a brief but eventful life, and one in which his celebrity status grew and the law closed in. There's not much more offered about Dillinger -- this is not a movie interested in digging into his childhood, or exploring his innermost thoughts, or in sentimentalizing and romanticizing him. Public Enemies is less interested in a psychological portrait than in looking at elements of a bigger, cultural picture: the cult of celebrity (especially criminal celebrity), the erosion of civil liberties in the name of law enforcement, tabloid journalism, and our enduring fascination with the gangsters of the thirties, about whom so many movies have been made.
Public Enemies is unlike any other film made about the gangsters of the period. Directed by Michael Mann, whose influence on modern crime films is substantial, it is artistically ambitious and serious, violent and dark, and ambivalent about romanticizing both criminals -- even the Dillingers and Robin Hoods -- and crimefighters. Mann shot Public Enemies in high-def digital video, which gives the movie a sharp, sometimes cold look that corresponds to its crisply clear-eyed, meticulous nature. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti gradually and subtly turns the lights down on the film, and, as Dillinger's life grows increasingly dark, and his prospects dim, so too does the movie. Depp offers a correspondingly low-watt performance in which Dillinger's charisma and charm are present, but there is ambivalence about the costs associated with his career and lifestyle. Dillinger appears to be cold, calculating and violent because his job requires it, and he loves his job. He is his job, in a certain sense, which makes Dillinger, in his odd way, an exemplar of the midwestern work ethic.
Public Enemies has perhaps more to say about law enforcement than about lawbreaking, and there the movie, written by Mann with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, is less ambivalent. G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) heads the FBI task force gunning for Dillinger, and participates in the formation of a new, more professional FBI, one that uses scientific methods to catch criminals. While Dillinger was winning hearts and minds with his bank robberies, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), dreaming of a New Model Army, attempted his own public relations campaign, which meant stopping criminals like Dillinger by any means necessary. Hoover is vaguely credited in the film with ushering in an age of ruthlessness in law enforcement, and an interpretive looseness with law and liberty that, we can safely say, persists to this day. Purvis himself is ambivalent (perhaps tormented) about some of the means used, such as tactics that in these euphemistic times might be called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Bale is an interesting choice for the role, which, in a far less flashy way, mirrors his role as Batman -- both are violent, ruthless, questionable and questioning crimefighters. Like Dillinger, Purvis is at bottom a cold realist, and determined to get the job done. But as with Dillinger, Public Enemies does not spend much time looking into the soul of the G-man.
So what is Public Enemies about? In some ways, it is as much about gangster movies as it is about gangsters and G-men. Dillinger watched a Clark Gable gangster movie called *Manhattan Melodrama* on the last night of his life. Public Enemies is no melodrama -- it's fairly stripped of sentiment and sensation, with unhammy performances and unstagy, matter-of-fact, fast and frantic, bullets-flying-everywhere action. It's a movie driven by brutal, unsentimental fact more than legend. It pulls the audience back, repeatedly, from any habit or impulse to glamorize or sentimentalize criminals, crimefighters, and violence. It is not a movie of deep feeling, and so, it is not a movie that leaves one feeling much. But in some ways, that emotional detachment is also what it is about. It's a detachment that serves as a palate cleanser, to make it possible to rethink, in a more intellectual way, the simplistic cops and robbers model of moviemaking and mythmaking.