The day after I saw Michael Mann’s newest crime flick, I went out and bought the non-fiction book it is based on, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. Burrough originally pitched the idea of a fictionalized re-telling of the American mythic gangsters as a miniseries to HBO, who was thrilled and hired him on.
Burrough himself wrote a piece about this in Vanity Fair before Mann started filming, and he probably describes the origins of the book more succinctly than I could:
I first stumbled upon the idea of a project tracking John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson and all the major Depression-era bank robbers, I thought the subject was too big to be a single book. Instead, with a friend’s help, I pitched the idea as a miniseries to HBO. To my amazement, they bought it.
With the stroke of a pen, I found myself not only a screenwriter but an executive producer, along with Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Films, of what was being billed as a major television event. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know the first thing about screenwriting. The only thing I knew about television was that Law & Order aired on Wednesdays at ten. Still, I plunged forward, buying up a stack of screenwriting texts and starting research on Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde and their peers. About six months in, I realized the subject might indeed fit into one book, so I signed a book contract as well.
Needless to say, the book work went much better than the screenwriting. My scripts, I suspect, were very, very bad. Ishtar bad. HBO and Tribeca, bless their hearts, brought in one screenwriter, then another, to take over the writing, while I dived headlong into book work. It took another year or two, but in time the whole TV project died quietly.
Burrough went on to write the book, HBO gave him the rights to his project back, and Mann picked up the rights, originally for Leonardo DiCaprio to play Dillinger, but we all know that didn’t work out (and instead we get Shutter Island, which I hope to be a blessing).
Let me step aside at the end of this history lesson and say that Public Enemies works the majority of the time. Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup are just the beginning of a cast that does a great job of developing all these characters, making moments out of what they are given. When Mann and Cinematographer Dante Spinotti let the digital video of the Sony’s CineAlta F23 soar above flare-illuminated scenes, it’s beautiful and when the finale of the film hits, it feels complete, a bigger film than it actually is.
If you like Michael Mann movies: guys, crime, the girls who love the guys and maybe the crime: this movie will not disappoint.
But that doesn’t mean that the film is some over-arching success.
Issue One: Public Enemies should have been a miniseries. Michael Mann and Johnny Depp both elevate this story to the level of a sweeping romantic/crime drama, but it takes them both awhile to immerse the audience in the world we are supposed to care about. The film could have been called “The Fall Of John Dillinger” and I wouldn’t have expected to mine my own personal knowledge of who these people were and what they were doing.
Mann drops the audience into a jail-break engineered by Dillinger, and some hot-head guy named Charlie causes another guy to get killed. This must be really dramatic for everyone involved because it’s shot that way, but the movie never stops to tell you about anyone that isn’t John Dillinger, Billie Frechette (Cotillard), or Bale’s Melvin Purvis. One of my questions at the end of the movie was: Who was Steven Dorff in this film and when exactly did he die (answers, thanks to the internet: Homer Van Meter/In the woods)?
This is how the first half of the film plays, it starts and never stops to tell you what is going on. Some characters, like Dorff, get mentioned once or twice in hurried dialogue, and with the exception of Dillinger, who is obviously the vault man, and Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who drives the getaway car, none of the bank robbers have their specific jobs highlighted. Dillinger was a meticulous planner and members of the crew had their specific job and instructions. The movie doesn’t want to stop to explain this to you; it’s more interested in a love story and the formation of the FBI. If the book was turned into a miniseries, some of the interesting real-life figures relegated to Tommy Gun fodder in the film could have been fleshed out. As it is, as long as Dillinger stays alive, the rest are pretty much expendable.
Point Two: Digital video does not do well with handheld, moving, close-ups and this movie has a lot of those. The film was shot on the CineAlta F23 as opposed to the Thomson Viper Filmstream Camera used on Mann’s Miami Vice and Collateral. When they lock the camera down or allow it to Steadicam and dolly through the space, the depth of field and sharp focus achieved are beyond what’s possible with 35mm, sometimes even pushing it beyond the 16mm threshold (Hurt Locker, shot on 16mm, also has amazing depth of field, but Public Enemies outdoes it).
The problem is that digital video has serious motion blur problems, and together with the challenges of using period-piece lighting and no sweeping establishing shots, the camera frequently creates a kinetic action feeling by going handheld, like a war movie, when the guns are going off. Though Mann and Spinotti are pushing the format, this is not a movie you want to be towards the front of the theater for. I didn’t have any problems with pixilation, but the blurs in the handheld shots made me wish they’d just lock the damn F23 down.
Point Three: I got the distinct feeling that Mann cares more about the development of the FBI than the tragedy of John Dillinger. Luckily, Johnny Depp decided to take a break from playing real-life cartoon characters (the past few years have been Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd) and reminds us all that Johnny Depp without makeup is still a force to be reckoned with. Marion Cotillard also manages to be completely believable and has that classic depression-era beauty to pull it off. By the time the interrogation of Billie starts taking place, Cotillard has the audience on her side, as they should be.
However, the movie feels more like a Michael Mann masterpiece when it’s sticking to history and showing us the development of what we’d consider modern policing techniques. Christian Bale’s Purvis doesn’t get to do much except watch his men die as J Edgar Hoover rides him for results, but when I had trouble telling the various Fedora-clad gangsters apart, I managed to pick up on the characters of the Officer’s pursuing them.
Dillinger’s character is kind of one-note until Clarke Gable literally gives him permission to die and the film feels complete. It’s all in Depp’s eyes, not in the script, but it feels like an arc. It’s just too bad that the film really pops when Purvis is on the hunt or Dillinger is dealing with the Mob.
The above three points aside, Public Enemies is undoubtedly up there with Heat on my list of awesome Michael Mann movies, but mostly because the good half of the film is the latter half, so everyone will be leaving the theater feeling good (that’s what summer movies are about, you know).
As soon as the film hits its stride with a beautifully shot, action-packed-yet-dramatic shoot out in a forest, it doesn’t let up on you and delivers exactly what it promised. You just have to bear with it for about an hour before you start getting your money’s worth.