Sunday, 2 August 2009
For a film about John Dillinger, the charismatic and audacious one man crime wave, Public Enemies is a remarkably understated biography of his infamy. Dillinger is portrayed to be as calculable in carrying out bank heists as he is contemplative and loyal to his principles, to his comrades and his love, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The series of heists that punctuate the film are given fleeting attention in the changing American context of federalism and organised crime, and the sense of the historical significance of John Dillinger is well impressed by the end. In a biopic that could have been a cops and robbers routine, Mann balances the film well - but possibly not enough - in opposing the men behind both lines, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew, and agent Melvyn Purvis (Christian Bale), the task-man recruited by J. Edgar Hoover (a well cast Billy Crudup) to take the gangster down. Depp is excellent, capturing the swagger and simple pleasures of the legendary bank robber, but so is Christian Bale, delivering an intelligent, and human portrayal of a complex man, judging by the ending biographical notes. There is a sense however, that Mann possibly does not dig deep enough in Purvis for audiences to really connect with him, the moral centre of the film. Marion Cotillard is fine in her role as Billie Frechette, working off Depp very well, and shares one of the most poignant scenes with Christian Bale as Purvis, disapproving of the methods of the G-men, carries her away after having been tortured. To say that Public Enemies is understated is not necessarily a summation of the entire film though, as it contains the greatest sequence of a Michael Mann film to date: the safe house siege. The cinematography in this scene and through the entire film is as you would expect from the director of Heat, incredible to look at, shot with a beautiful crispness and clarity, and the shoot out itself is just as arresting, shots discharged like solar flares amidst a night time backdrop. What is most impressive is the sense of context and historical movement that is occurring, as organised crime re-organises, and the FBI has its methods questioned. The movie is as much about the fall of the legendary John Dillinger as it is a questioning oversight of the limits of law enforcement. In Mann’s latest effort, we have possibly his best, one that is meticulously laboured and shot, and that will improve upon future viewing.