Here is one for those of you who say that I don't review enough modern films.
'Public Enemies' (2009)
Millions are out of work. Homes are being foreclosed on. Those formerly highly respected institutions called banks are now despised (many regard them as contributing to the economic collapse.) The Stock Market has taken a tremendous drop. Hordes of hungry, desperate people are migrating to places which offer a chance for a better life. Sound familiar?
No, these aren't the headlines from this morning's New York Times. They are the grim realities of historical record (in this case, the early 1930s.) They also provide the background for a remarkable new film called 'Public Enemies', directed by Michael Mann. There have now been four generations since that last truly severe economic disaster, and most contemporary Americans have no first hand experience of deprivation of any kind. (To them the Great Depression is something which they hear Grandpa muttering about in his lucid moments.) Now that the suburban Disneyland bubble which surrounded them for the past 60 years has finally burst, 'Public Enemies' serves as a good reminder that this isn't the first generation to get an economic reality slap-in-the-face! Unfortunately, The parallels between our time and the early years of the Great Depression may not be grasped by the intended target audience: twenty somethings (who will no doubt flock to see this film on the basis of Johnny Depp's star appeal alone.)
Co-writer/director Michael Mann ('Heat', 'Miami Vice') has made a good looking film about the legendary, romanticized gangster John Dillinger, whose own romantic impulses led to his demise. Built from ideas about loyalty, doing the right thing (on both sides of the law) and finding your man (or woman), 'Public Enemies' uses today's film-making technology to tell an old story, that of the angry, alienated outcast who lives totally for the thrill of the moment. The result is breathtaking.
Mann’s film starts with a bang as loud as Johnny D.'s Tommy gun: the first spectacular prison escape by Dillinger and some followers. It is during this breakout that we first become familiar with Dillinger's code of ethics. We see Dillinger clinging to his wounded mentor Walter Dietrich (James Russo - 'Open Range') from the running board of a Ford until the very last minute. Finally the man slips away. It doesn't matter whether it actually happened this way or not. It is a powerful, moving scene.
But Dillinger has no time to gloat: F.B.I. headman J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup - 'Almost Famous', 'Watchmen') wants to make an example of Dillinger. A special unit is set up with the explicit purpose of nabbing John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1! Hoover appoints Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale - 'Empire of the Sun', 'The Dark Knight') to head the Chicago office of the nascent Bureau. He wants to nail Dillinger to show that his Bureau is deserving of more financial support from Congress.
Dillinger continues to rob banks, but along the way he loses the men he works with, one-by-one. This leads him to make the rash decision to join forces with Baby Face Nelson, a choice he quickly regrets. This is paralleled by Purvis's decision to move in on the infamous hole up at Little Bohemia Lodge, even after being cautioned against it by Agent Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang - 'Gettysburg', 'Gods and Generals'), a man personally recruited by Purvis to fight Dillinger. If the earlier bank robberies were slick, the Lodge sequence looks more like a war movie. During this scene, Dillinger's only remaining ally, his right hand man 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke - 'Rabbit-Proof Fence', 'Death Race'), tells him he believes his number is up. Subsequently, in one beautifully composed shot, we see John and Red retreat on foot: Dillinger's death at the hands of a GMan seen over his right shoulder is foreshadowed. Then Red's prediction comes true and Dillinger suddenly finds himself completely alone.
When Dillinger turns to old colleague Phil D'Andrea (John Ortiz - 'Miami Vice', 'Fast & Furious') for shelter, he's turned down flat. Phil's boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp - 'The Dying Gaul') has declared Dillinger a liability. Seems Dillinger's antics have resulted in a new law making crossing state lines a federal offense. Nitti's cross country gambling syndicate is now at risk as the new law could be used to prosecute the Mob as well. While electronic gadgetry hums in the background, Phil informs John that Nitti's operation takes in as much dough each and every day as one of the gang's bank heists (Indeed, one of the film's recurring motifs is that Dillinger and his kind are crude anachronisms in the new high tech world: the last of a dying breed of outlaws), and they aren't about to allow a low level hood to jeopardize their racket.
At one point in the story, Dillinger is captured. After being nabbed in Tucson, AZ, Johnny and the boys are extradited to the Crown Point jail in Indiana to stand trial. (This scene was filmed at the actual jail incidentally.) The local police boast to area newspapers that the jail is escape-proof, but post extra guards just to make sure. It is here that Dillinger makes his second spectacular escape. In his cell, Dillinger secretly carved a wooden gun, which he painted black with shoe polish. Using it, he was able to trick a guard into opening his cell. He then took two men hostage, rounded up all the guards in the jail, locked them into his cell, and fled. Dillinger even managed to steal Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car!. From Crown Point he headed to Chicago. In so doing, he broke the new federal Motor Vehicle Theft Act. Since this was a crime now under the jurisdiction of the FBI (crossing a state line in a stolen car), the bureau could - and did - legally take over the Dillinger case. Dillinger was indicted by a local grand jury and the FBI organized a nationwide manhunt for him.
In Chicago, Dillinger reunites with his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette (Marion Cotillard - 'La vie en rose', a film virtually nobody saw in America). His first meeting with Billie was dramatized earlier in the film. After spying the beauty at a night club he immediately informed her that she was going to be his girl. At first rejecting his advances, she gradually allowed herself to fall for the swarthy hood.
As the story continues, Director Mann never lets up on the action. Prison breaks alternate with bank robberies, the loud rat-tat-tats of the Thompson sub-machine guns light up the darkness like Fourth of July exhibitions, and characters are killed off one by one in a fusillade of bullets. First to go is Walter Dietrich (James Russo), one of Dillinger's mentors, who once told Dillinger to always only work with people he knew and to never make a move in desperation. (For a little over a year, this is exactly what Dillinger did.) Later, its the near psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) who gets it. Ultimately, Dillinger himself comes to a violent end.
Incidentally, Dillinger's own inevitable demise is handled masterfully. (Warning: Spoiler Ahead) He attends a showing of 'Manhattan Melodrama' at the Biograph theater with whore Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski - 'Eyes Wide Shut', 'The Wicker Man' (2006)) and her madam, Anna Sage (Branka Katic, HBO's 'Big Love'). Sage is the infamous 'lady in red' who betrayed Dillinger to the F.B.I. in order to avoid deportation. For this scene Mann used a montage of actual footage from 'Manhattan Melodrama' (1934) - a crime film featuring Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, and William Powell. He skillfully inter-cuts it with reactions from Depp who clearly sees Billie and himself reflected on the silver screen. The romanticization of criminals in the popular arts is nothing new, Mann seems to say. After leaving the theater, Dillinger is gunned down by Purvis and his agents. This sequence is as beautifully orchestrated as the restaurant hit performed by Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather', Part I.
Johnny Depp is excellent as Dillinger. He commands one's attention every second he's on the screen. Certainly prettier than the real Dillinger, Depp still manages to nail his character's inner persona. He carries himself with the physical confidence befitting one who robs banks for a living. Depp's portrayal may be the definitive screen Dillinger, eclipsing previous great interpretations by actors such as Warren Oates and Laurence Tierney. Cotillard, too, is no pushover as Public Enemy Number One's main squeeze, Billie. She does just fine in her first English speaking role. The chemistry between Dillinger and Frechette is palpable in large part because of her. Christian Bale plays Purvis as a straight-arrow Boy Scout constantly let down by many of the men under his command. He does well in a difficult role.
The outstanding supporting cast is also a delight to watch. Relative unknowns Jason Clarke (as Dillinger's right hand man) and Stephen Graham (as the borderline psychotic Baby Face Nelson), are the standouts. Also watch for Giovanni Ribisi (TV's 'Friends', 'My Name Is Earl') as Alvin Karpis, and Lili Taylor ('The Notorious Bettie Page', 'I Shot Andy Warhol') as Sheriff Lillian Holley. Stephen Dorff and Shawn Hatosy fill out small roles as a Dillinger associate and GMan respectively. However, it is Billy Crudup, who (in the weirdest bit of casting in the film) somehow manages to pull it off as J. Edna (I mean J. Edgar) Hoover! His fey interpretation is probably the most accurate screen portrayal to date of the legendary - and controversial - F.B.I. director. Jazz songstress Diana Krall also appears briefly as a nightclub singer.
In addition to Mann's deft direction, mention should also be made of the art direction by William Ladd Skinner and Patrick Lumb, Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford's editing, the costume design by Colleen Atwood, and Elliot Goldenthal's original score. But it is the stunning work of Dante Spinotti ('L.A. Confidential', 'The Insider' (Academy Award winner), 'Goodbye Lover') which is the standout. Spinotti's high def cinematography is so crisp one finds oneself continuously distracted by the minute visual details. You won't see better cinematography this year. All these elements cohere to make 'Public Enemies' one of the most exciting and best looking, films of 2009. It has Oscars written all over it.
Some have criticized the film for not sufficiently showing the harsh economic reality of the times (as was done in the classic, and similar themed, 'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967) for example.) No soup kitchens are in sight. We mostly see elegant, beautiful people enjoying themselves in night clubs, movies theaters, resorts, etc.. I agree with this observation; Mann should have shown some of the social conditions which allowed Dillinger (and other bank robbers) to be revered by the impoverished masses as a folk hero. And he might also have dramatized the crowds which cheered him on during many of his escapades. (Historically accurate, this phenomena was partly due to hostility to the banks - which had foreclosed on many people's homes - and partly because Dillinger destroyed records of loans and mortgages held by the institutions.)
This one cavil aside, 'Public Enemies' covers the last days of a legendary era with fine acting and a stunning visual flourish. I highly recommend it.
Mark E. DeSnow