Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s first venture into true-life territory since 1999’s The Insider. He has long been a master of slick fictionalised crime – his CV is a roll call of criminal capers and cops. The first twenty minutes of Public Enemies is this familiar Mann ““ the man who made Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice is here you think. The screen, the very room filled with slick staccato sights and sounds. It is cool; it looks period but feels contemporary, fast paced; a jail break, a bank heist, bang, bang, rapid-fire images, bang, bang. A car crests a hill with the robbers on the running boards clutching hostages to them, pretty girls, big guns, devil-may-care men; Gangsters. It explodes out of the screen burning with the same white-hot intensity that Mann believes fuelled John Dillinger in the final, fantastical, thirteen months of his life.
Oh. It’s all a little bit style-over-content. The suits are sharp, the cars are fast but you had hoped for a little more, and then”¦the humanity. The heart of Public Enemies is so straightforward and unabashed that it rather creeps up on you. The score helps; Elliot Goldenthal, who had previously scored Heat for Mann, wrings your emotions with subtle efficiency but, in the main, the credit must go to Depp.
Johnny Depp is so much a part of popular consciousness that it’s easy to forget how extraordinarily good he is. He doesn’t so much play John Dillinger as inhabit him, body and soul. He moves differently ““ this is not Captain Jack loping and swooning, this man is coiled tight and ready to spring at you even in repose, even as his eyes tell another tale. There is knowing and calculation in this haunted man, awareness of time spinning counter-clockwise and running out, away from him. When hatcheck girl Billie Frechette asks him what he wants his reply is simple:
“I want everything”¦right now!”
Marion Cotillard’s Billie and her naked trust in Dillinger bring out the man beneath the layers of legend. John Dillinger may be the Robin Hood of American folklore today but he was also a young man who died without reaching his 32nd birthday. He loved movies, and the final moments of a bespectacled Depp sitting in The Biograph cinema with images of Clark Gable as a Dillinger-esque gangster dancing across the lenses will undoubtedly secure him a statuette at next years Oscars. He plays a life squeezed into a baker’s dozen months with such conviction that you are captivated by his spiral.
Depp is ably matched by co-star Christian Bale whose role in Public Enemies is rather more significant than Johnny-biased trailers may have you believe. His portrayal of G-man Melvin Purvis is all stoic determination but the parallels between his journey and Dillinger’s punctuate as his conscience and values are sacrificed in the pursuit of Public Enemy Number One. He too has ghosts, but his ghosts are of what is yet to be. When Frechette is brutalised in an interrogation and he swoops into the room to save her he may as easily be Dillinger himself as an agent of Hoover. To read what became of Purvis in the closing credits is poignant because Bale so eloquently communicates the price the man paid. Cotillard’s Billie is equally multi-faceted, she believes that Dillinger will always come for her because he needs her to believe him, but she knows each time they say goodbye may be the last.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti has collaborated with Michael Mann on five other films, but it is his work on LA Confidential that I was most reminded of here. The combination of Mann’s utter insistence on authenticity and physical locations, and the aesthetic powers of Spinotti create a sense of place and time that feels immediate, even as it is undeniably “˜then’. Public Enemies works, beyond the style and attention to detail, because it is intimate ““ these lives were important not because they are the stuff of legend but because they were lived. Once upon a time banks fell, businesses crumbled and a man stood up to say I’m not going to take this any more.
As the gang fall away one by one, ruined by the reckless glee of Baby Face Nelson (a magnificently manic Stephen Graham) and the dogged pursuit of Melvin Purvis, you fall in step with Dillinger. On his long walk towards the end you are at his side and you hope what must be will not be. When it comes it is a sucker punch that winds you and lingers.
“Die how you lived, all of a sudden.“
Public Enemies is out on DVD in the UK today