Public Enemies is the cleverly double-edged main title of Bryan Burrough’s fascinating 2004 account of the War on Crime, which provides the raw material for Michael Mann’s film of the same name. The obvious reference is to the official status of the likes of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and so forth as enemies of the public.
But the book’s subtitle, America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–1934, suggests another meaning. Public Enemies is really about a war with two enemy sides, two sets of enemies in public: on the one hand, the criminal gangs of the early 1930s; on the other, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard “Pop” Nathan, Hugh Clegg, Melvin Purvis and the rest of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation later to be known as the FBI.
Neither sense of the plural title quite clicks for Mann’s film, which largely narrows the focus of the story to a single public enemy, John Dillinger. Law enforcement and other bad guys are alike reduced to minor supporting roles in the drama of Dillinger’s final 13-month crime spree. Even Dillinger remains an enigma, magnetically but remotely played by Johnny Depp.
This Dillinger is the sort of character who says “Anywhere I want” when someone asks where he’s going and “Everything, right now” when someone asks what he wants. To Billie Frenchette (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose), who initially resists his overtures on the grounds that she knows nothing about him, he says, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?”
The answer, I guess, is that we don’t necessarily need to know anything, even that. A movie doesn’t have to be about what makes its protagonist tick; he can be an enigma, and it can still be a good movie. But a movie has to be about something. If not the protagonist’s inner world, then his outer world — his relationships with his fellows, his enemies, his girl, his public, his work, his methods, his image, the culture, the zeitgeist, whatever it is.
Public Enemies offers a bit here and there. There’s a too-brief press conference following an arrest in which Dillinger polishes his media image, a fleeting exchange about why Dillinger won’t court public disapproval by resorting to kidnapping, but not much more on Dillinger’s iconic folk-hero status. A few exchanges toy with possible themes: Dillinger cites advice he’s gotten against working when you’re desperate, but later realizes that when you’re desperate is when you don’t have a choice.
Mann shows us the physicality Dillinger brought to bank robberies — the athletic leaps and graceful movements for which he was known — but not the meticulous planning, the elaborately mapped getaway routes and so forth. Nor do we get a sense of the impression created by Dillinger’s moves: how even before Dillinger’s name was known the papers carried stories about a bank robber who leaped a railing during a heist, and how an Indiana state police captain named Matt Leach read about it and recognized the potential of this flamboyant figure for an ambitious future career.
We see Dillinger carry out a daring jailbreak with a carved wooden gun, but not the theatrical charades his gang sometimes used to gain access to banks, masquerading as bank security system salesmen or even film crews scouting locations for a bank robbery scene. The pretense of Hollywood connections is fleetingly referenced in another scene in which one of Dillinger’s gang members idly impresses a female hostage during a getaway by claiming to be a studio scout when he isn’t robbing banks.
Meanwhile, Dillinger asks the other hostage if he knows the words to “The Last Roundup,” and proceeds to sing the chorus (“Get along, little dogie, get along”). His manner is neither casual and cheerful, nor capricious and menacing, nor eccentric and amusing. If one had to call it something, it might be detached and ironic, which doesn’t seem right. Later, speaking to the press, the hostage seems as puzzled by the incident as the viewer.
For what it’s worth, this getaway is related in Burrough’s book. Burrough makes no mention of the robber putting on the lady hostage about being a Hollywood scout — though he does report that Dillinger rebuked a gang member for cursing in the lady’s presence, a chivalrous gesture omitted from the film. Burrough describes Dillinger singing “The Last Roundup,” not during the getaway, but on another occasion driving from town into the countryside. Dillinger’s mood on both occasions is described as “buoyant.” Why borrow the song without evoking the mood?
Despite what he tells Billie, there’s no evidence of Dillinger taking an interest in baseball, and even the movies — a diversion Dillinger enjoyed several times a week, according to Burrough — figures only in the climax (where it is crucial). If Depp’s Dillinger cares about anything, it’s Billie — and if there’s anything worth caring about in the film, it’s Cotillard’s fragile, defiant performance, embodying the one character in the film with any emotional depth.
A hat-check girl of half-French, half–American Indian ancestry, Billie becomes Dillinger’s girl reluctantly and against her better judgment. “You don’t think past today or tomorrow,” she remonstrates with fatalistic reserve.
“I’m gonna die an old man in your arms,” Dillinger contradicts. Does he mean it, or merely tell her what she wants to hear? Probably the latter, since Dillinger himself elsewhere comments, “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.” Or is that, too, merely what was expedient to say?
Billie is the film’s best chance for a point of view on its enigmatic antihero, and almost frames Public Enemies as a love story, particularly with the addition of a sentimental fictional coda. But Billie’s screentime with Dillinger is restricted by his career path, and when they go their separate ways the film rarely leaves him to follow her. Ironically, Billie’s most memorable scene, and one of the film’s most vivid moments, takes place not with Dillinger, but with a brutal G-man, Harold Reinecke (Adam Mucci). It’s a shame the moment is bookended by heavy-handed good cop/bad cop sequences in which Billie is first abused and then defended by venal or noble men.
Bale gets second billing as Purvis, Hoover’s golden boy, the man who allegedly shot Pretty Boy Floyd and who (after repeated failures) finally cornered Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. But Bale barely registers at all, except in two key shots in which his eyes glint with focused ferocity as he carefully trains a sniper scope on a thug in full flight. The one scene Dillinger and Purvis share, in an Indiana jail, is meant to be understated, like DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, but it just fizzles.
The most enduring impression is Depp’s sense of self-aware cool, above all in the bold penultimate scene in which Dillinger wanders through a police station, looking at his own clippings and such and even exchanging pleasantries with a number of oblivious cops listening to a game. (Oh wait, Dillinger asks them the score — evidence that he does care about baseball after all?)
Dillinger’s larger-than-life blank-slate persona invites comparisons to another recent film based on a book about an earlier celebrity criminal, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But that film had a point of view bound up with its real protagonist: Bob Ford, the man who who murdered the lifelong hero he could never live up to. The Assassination of Jesse James used that point of view to explore the gap between legend and reality.
No such perspective is evident in Public Enemies. With its well-staged stickups and shootouts, its snappy fedoras and jaunty automobiles, it seems to be all surface — a glossy updating of 1930s Hollywood gangster melodrama without any substantial commentary or insight.
P.S. Much has been made of Mann’s decision to shoot in digital video, a format praised by some as vivid and honest and derided by others as flat and muddy. I think the look of the film works; what is at times distractingly bad is the sound mix, which sometimes leaves main dialogue muffled and hard to hear even as background sounds and music are perfectly clear.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.