Sunday, January 24, 2010

Second Thoughts: Public Enemies

[Edited: 7/21/2012]

The majority of mainstream critical opinion largely matched my initial reaction to Michael Mann's Public Enemies -- that it was an overlong, undercooked mash-up of the epic detail and design of Heat with the digital realism of Collateral and Miami Vice. Some reviews, however, have already flagged it as a modern masterpiece. Spirited, well-written defenses can be found all over the Web, with some of my particular favorites located at Kevin J. Olson's Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and Doniphon's The Long Voyage Home. They, among others, argue that the disjointed minimalism of Public Enemies works to its benefit, not detriment, that the seemingly underdeveloped characters remain largely two-dimensional in our perception because Mann is using them to undermine the more romantic notions of the gangster genre.

Upon a second viewing, and after revisiting a number of Mann's other films and especially Miami Vice, I can appreciate and, to an extent, accept that argument. Public Enemies strikes me as the gangster equivalent of Jarhead: an attempt to demystify the allure of gangster violence the way Jarhead sought to deny the belief (stated within the film) that all war films inherently celebrate conflict due to their visceral content. It's a bold gambit, and a risky one, as Mendes' film went so far in the other direction that it perversely fulfilled its mission statement by being simply boring, a charge leveled at Mann's latest by its detractors.

Public Enemies opens in true Mann fashion, with only the sparest dialogue over shots of gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) arriving at prison and hastily edited visual cues that reveal how he's already organized his escape with his incarcerated gang. The escape, as it must, goes awry, Dillinger's perfect plan foiled by the predictable influence of unpredictability. One of the gang loses his cool and beats a guard, resulting in the shooting of another guard and the subsequent alerting of the rest of the prison. As the crew makes a break for the getaway car, tower guards shoot and kill Walter, the only gang member Dillinger displayed any personal connection toward during the breakout, and Mann lingers on Dillinger as he watches the life fade from his friend's eyes and, at last, releases the man's hand as the car speeds away.

This moment references the protracted deaths in Miami Vice, which all seemed to drag out because of the digital video and the way it captured movement (bodies fell more slowly, it appeared), yet Mann ends with moment with curt finality, the body suddenly halting after being dragged along by the car. Dillinger pulls a gun as he closes the door and presses it to the throat of the man who botched the escape, before throwing him from the car and leaving his limp body on the side of the road as suddenly as he'd just seen his friend die. This immediate perversion of the romanticism of the previous death, combined with the look on Depp's face -- his eyes are as lifeless as the ones he stared into -- shows the real Dillinger under all the Robin Hood myths. Here is a man who compartmentalized emotion and dissipated it instantaneously, a man who would kill without a moment's hesitation.

This abrupt, immediate dissection of a mythos is then applied to FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), whom we meet chasing Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) through a field before dispatching him with a well-aimed rifle shot. Purvis has the same brooding look on his face as he watches Floyd bleed out, and he too steels himself from it, dumping whatever he felt just as quickly as it entered into his mind. I found the film soulless when I saw it in the theater, and I still think that's true; what I missed, perhaps in the thrill of finally seeing a Mann film on the big screen, is that it's because its lead characters have no souls.

The casting of the two leads reflects upon Mann's cheek. Depp, one of the most vivid, complexly cartoonish actors in the biz, plays his role entirely straight; his eyes have conveyed rakishness and danger before -- the Pirates of the Caribbean films come to mind -- but never with such cold intensity, not even when he played the tortured barber out for revenge in Sweeney Todd. He looks like a caged animal in Public Enemies, always looking for a way out even when things aren't so bad. Dillinger enjoyed a massive cult of personality during his robbery spree, sparked by his Robin Hood-esque refusal to take the money of customers, only the bank's. Mann, however, sees him as nothing more than a pathological criminal, driven to rob as if a biological need and willing to kill anyone who might threaten his safety.

Bale, coming off a string of blockbusters that were turning him into the growling, tough-guy hero of the new generation, plays a character every bit as blindly committed to simple-minded, borderline fascistic notions of justice and the law. Purvis stands up for J. Edgar Hoover (a deliciously campy Billy Crudup, who appears to be channeling all of Hoover's fetishes and kinks through his clipped, high-pitched whine) and meticulously follows the book on catching felons even though it's still being written. He believes in a code of ethics in his work, yet he displays a remarkable ability to dash that code in a moment's notice to catch a suspect. Dillinger naturally attracts our attention, with both the benefit of owning more screen time and of the seductive nature of crime in general, but Purvis is the true Mann protagonist: a man who violates his strict moral code despite placing utmost importance upon it. Bale here is Batman and John Connor used to ironic purpose to highlight the dubious ethics of lawmen given liberties to pursue criminals without oversight, an implicit political statement that Mann never forces onto the narrative.

The closest we get to character exposition from either comes from a romantically terse exchange between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat-check girl who catches the robber's eye. When he punches out a customer and invites her to come with him, the two engage in that pat nonsense of "I don't even know you!" that comes with such whisk-you-off-your-feet moments, but Dillinger manages to sum up his life in a burst of dialogue that might be the first truly romantic thing he's ever said in his life: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey and you... what else you need to know?"

It's an attitude that pervades the picture as a whole: Mann is less concerned with what motivates these characters than how their actions define them, and that brief speech manages to be oddly charming while working as a sly dig at all the movies who take two hours to explain a criminal's behavior as the product of a bad childhood and greed. We're never given a reason for Dillinger robbing banks, nor even moments that show him taking pleasure in a large haul; yet the clinical way he runs his robberies, the way he lets the customers keep the money they have on them to build his mythos and to win over the hearts of ordinary citizens who might protect him simply in numbers, and his curt behavior in everyday situations reveal a calculating psychopath who knows how to manipulate things to his advantage. Likewise, Purvis, also clinical, betrays his code of conduct because he wants to succeed at his job, and if Dillinger will kill anyone to save his own skin, Purvis will cut any ethical corner to track down a criminal.

Yet each man has his limits. Dillinger, icy and murderous as he may be, clearly cares for Billie, and obviously not for any boost in social status either. He loves her so dearly that he even listens to her life story, and Mann places the sound of Billie recounting her childhood over shots of the two making love, signifying that allowing someone to delve into their past -- something Dillinger doesn't believe in -- is an act of spiritual unification and adoration every bit as physically romantic as sex. Purvis also displays his humanity with Billie; when the feds capture her and one agent beats her for information, until Purvis can no longer sit by and acquiesce to the loss of his morality and stops the torture.

Mann's films typically feature a confrontation of sorts between the "hero" and "villain" (that line is usually blurred) -- Miami Vice sitting at one extreme, where the entire film is about interactions between cops and criminals before the final battle, and at the other is The Insider, which derives much of its tension by assailing Jeffrey Wigand with unseen forces -- and Dillinger and Purvis do have a conversation about 50 minutes into the film, as Dillinger sits in a cell awaiting transfer after the cops catch a lucky break. The two establish an instant kinship with each other: neither derives much pleasure from his line of work -- only the more psychotic members of each side, such as Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), express any delight -- and they share an unspoken bond when Dillinger brings up death and the way you can see life drift from the eyes. The diner scene in Heat revealed basic truths of Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna and how they related to each other, and this scene works in the same fashion: Dillinger cuts to the heart of their differences by noting that Purvis likes to take criminals down from a distance, picking them off with a rifle shot after a plan comes together and the bad guys are outnumbered, while John is in the middle of a fracas, planning as he goes. They're both empty-hearted killers, but Purvis attempts to distance himself from this self-understanding.

The proximity of this confrontation to the similar pre-showdown battle of wits in Heat reflects the manner in which Public Enemies serves as a stylistic and thematic mélange of the director's filmography. It contains the same highly detailed crime procedural found in Heat, the minimalism of Thief, the grainy romanticism of digital forays Collateral and Miami Vice, the faithful period recreation of The Last of the Mohicans and the unorthodox biopic structuring of Ali. It builds to an overload of Mann's various styles, and, frankly, it doesn't always work. Surprisingly, the picture looks sharper on Blu-Ray, the shifting digital and film shots not clashing so violently as they did in the theater; however, I still find myself wanting to take in this world and being constantly denied.

But if Public Enemies serves as a grab-bag of Mann's corpus, it also is perhaps the one film in his catalog that most concerns the cinema or, more accurately, the effect of the cinema. The people who endured the Great Depression, as many do now in our current financial predicament, escaped to the theater for respite. Furthermore, this was the age before television, when people received news either on the radio or as newsreels that preceded features at the movies (when Dillinger is transferred by plane, Mann shows reporters waiting at the end of the runway and even provides a POV shot of one of their cameras filming the landing). Ergo, criminals like Dillinger could easily appear larger than life, as normal citizens only ever saw them on screens bigger than themselves. Many supporters -- myself included -- of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers cite the film as "ahead of its time," yet we see here that the public's love affair with violent criminals stretches back decades, perhaps further -- when cops drive Dillinger to jail, citizens line the streets to wave ecstatically at him. One of the key scenes of the movie, in which Dillinger heads to the local theater, which displays his mugshot on the screen before the movie and asks the audience to look around for the criminals "among you." It's obviously a typical PSA, written out by the Feds and delivered to theaters to announce to their patrons, and the scene works less as a moment of suspense and more as a perverse sort of wish fulfillment for Dillinger, who gets to see himself on the big screen before the movie comes on; in a way, he got top billing. Of course, Dillinger dies just outside the Biograph Theater, after seeing Manhattan Melodrama, during which he clearly envisions himself as Clark Gable (whose character was, ironically, modeled after the gangster).

That brief romanticizing of Dillinger through cinema, while ultimately revealed to be hollow, informs some other scenes, most specifically the one where he strolls into an FBI office and walks around in the room dedicate to his case without being caught. The sheer effrontery of his actions betray a man who, for all his cold danger, is starting to buy into his own myth. There are even a few shots that utilize the same golden hue as the Godfather films, and for the same purpose: such shots establish the legend of the character even as Mann gently subverts it with the terrible truth of that character. Mann fills the screen with death, but he never exploits it, instead using it as a drawn-out yet blunt method of breaking down the allure of the criminal life. Those shots of Purvis and Dillinger watching men die at the start telegraph this, as does the end of the astonishing Little Bohemia shootout -- how great is it to actually see the smoke from gunfire fill a room in a realistic fashion? -- a sudden caesura that replaces the bursts of Thompson and BAR fire with a shot of a gangster's final, ragged breath, visible in the cold, floating in the air like a soul leaving the body.

Yet Mann clearly has the same dalliance with the romanticism of crime that Dillinger has, and he devotes a brief but telling couple of scenes to the changing face of crime in America. The betting pool controlled by the Mafia, who eliminate competition and establish a single betting operation for the entire country, represents the death of individual crime, even among organizations like the mob. Dillinger is a dying breed, his charisma derived in part because he was so unapologetically a criminal where later gangsters always tried to pass themselves off as "legitimate." He doesn't have a waste management front or a friend in Congress; he's just got a Tommy gun and a collection of contacts he met in prison.

The name of the film is Public Enemies, yet the ad campaign only featured Depp and Bale: in the film, the FBI receives more scrutiny and scorn than Dillinger. Purvis is just as dangerous as Public Enemy Number One, just as loose with his morals and just as willing to take extreme measures to get what he wants. This is not Mann's indictment of police so much as a snapshot of a time when criminals and cops were identifiable, when cops didn't need to go undercover and criminals didn't need to hide behind loopholes: Purvis hints that the line between the two is about to blur, his showy, fashionable dress and distanced behavior edging near our perception of a mob boss. Hoover, whom Mann reminds us never served in any field capacity in apprehending criminals, introduces draconian tactics to fighting crime that greatly infringed upon rights and liberties, calling into question the worth of a police force that also strong-armed the innocent. Perhaps, then, Mann suggests that the de-mystification of crime also affected those on the side of the law.

As it happened with Miami Vice, I find my opinion significantly altered, but I am not prepared to call Public Enemies the rousing success the way I would Mann's previous feature. As his other digital/film combos, he wants to place us into the action without gimmickry and to let us experience emotions as they come. But Public Enemies is about two characters who don't know how to process emotions normally, Dillinger because he spent his formative years in prison for a grocery shoplifting that didn't warrant the punishment, Purvis because he's so thirsty for glory he's set aside his humanity. This creates a dissonance between Mann's intentions and the nature of the characters that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, leading to occasional lulls. Nevertheless, I understand now what Mann was trying to do, and, like Miami Vice, I can confidently say that I'll be revisiting it for years.


  1. Excellent and thorough analysis, Jake.

    In contrast to some of the critics you mentioned, I never had much problem with the elements lacking in Public Enemies. The film strikes me as almost unique amongst commercial films, given Mann's desire to use actions to convey character, also the way Dillinger uses his actions to manufacture his myth on the spot. What could be less interesting than a back story for a gangster? Dillinger is something of a seize-the-day junkie, living off the high of the immediacy and danger of robberies, and that impulse suits the cinematic form well.

  2. It's an attitude that pervades the picture as a whole: Mann is less concerned with what motivates these characters than how their actions define them...

    I think that's true. Criticisms of the film's lack of character development are in many cases, I suspect, the result of audiences being programmed to suspect such things, even when they aren't necessary. ("What could be less interesting than a back story for a gangster?" Indeed, FilmDr!) They are also a result of the fact that Mann's leads, despite all of his interest in technical procedure, have almost alway been men of passion -- for their job and usually, along the way, for a woman. Because Mann's leads have been driven by that passion in the past, it's natural that his fans would expect to see more of the same in Public Enemies and be shocked not to find it.

    And that brings me here: The criticisms are fair to a degree because Mann doesn't abandon this idea of passion entirely. Instead he microwaves it. John and Billie fall in love in an instant but without much passion. John watches Red die, and we can suspect they're close but we haven't much seen it. John loves robbing banks, we know, but though he says they're "having too much fun" to stop, we don't really see that. Point being, I think Mann is short-cutting engagement here. I think he wants us to just swallow these microwaved bits and pretend they go down like something slow-cooked, and they don't. Maybe this is subjective, but if these men are only men of action, and not men of motivation, Public Enemies is much less interesting. Mann's ability to balance both in the past has been what sets him apart.

    Having said that, I've seen the film three times now (twice in the theater and once on Blu-ray) and I'm liking it more each time because having reached the end of the film it's easy to apply some of the passion retroactively to scenes near the beginning of the film that were cold the first time around.

    I guess this is my way of saying that I think it's a mistake for people to dismiss Public Enemies because it lacks the intimacy of other Mann films. Then again, I think it's also a mistake to come to the conclusion that Mann must have meant for this film to be so cold and distant. In Mann terms, I think that's a bit of a screw-up. But it's a pretty darn great screw-up.

  3. Oh, one more thing ...

    The proper rules of film reviewing -- I know I mention this all the time, but bear with me -- state that one must avoid all reviews of a film before reviewing it oneself (unpaid bloggers such as this writer can perhaps argue for a little leeway as we are spending our own money at the cineplex and don't want to waste it).

    For what it's worth ... I avoid reading about a film before I review it for two reasons: 1) I want to report my honest reaction -- the reaction I felt seeing the film; 2) I don't want to self-censor myself if my reaction is similar to one that's already been printed. What I mean by No. 2 is this: A few years ago I wrote a review of some movie -- can't remember which -- and the next day printed out Ebert's review of that film to enjoy it over lunch. I was floored to see that our reviews were almost identical ... same observations in the same order. Had I ripped him off? Of course not. My review wasn't even published. It was just for me. But had I read Ebert first I would have nodded my head in agreement and then felt like writing the review I wanted to write would have been copying Ebert. So, for the most part, I want to get my own piece in print and then see what others said.

    Having said that ... This post above illustrates what's so great about the blogosphere. You get the chance to go back, to reconsider, to weigh what you've read and what you've seen in repeated viewings. Then you can write from that perspective. It's just as honest and just as valid.

  4. "For what it's worth ... I avoid reading about a film before I review it for two reasons..."

    Oh, I don't really read reviews for the films I see, but I do allow myself to get a general feel for a broad consensus because I don't have a job so I have to basically parcel out cash I get from the odd tutor session with various family friends and I try not to waste it one something I can be pretty sure I'll hate (unless the general vibe is so negative my schadenfreude kicks in; the rest I save for the eventual home rental). I don't look at specifics until after I'm done.

    I will say though that I often come across reviews when I'm writing about an older film and looking for the context of its original release. I have what I saw already jotted down but I like to gauge its reception then vs. now and how critics then perceived it. But even then I don't spend time looking at reviews for films I'm about to watch before I get around to it.

  5. I just printed this out to read later, so I'll come back and comment on the post itself later, but to add to the digression over when to read reviews of a movie....

    At one point I actually read other people's reviews to assist in formulating my own thoughts -- it was a novice thing to do and I've gotten out of that habit by writing enough that it finally comes a bit naturally that I don't need help from others to crystallize my thoughts. I never considered that stealing, by the way, but some may say it was.

    Now I typically write up a rough draft on the movie from my notes and then only go read what others have said in order to see how my thoughts compare to theirs, that context which can then make my final post a little more relevant to the overall discussion.

  6. This is brilliant Jake!

    Lots of great points about what defines these characters, about the role of Cinema and comparisons to Mann's other work.

    I thought the first twenty minutes or so underpowered (or boring if you will!) and then it really built into something quite epic. The scene at the biograph, his shooting and the coda with Billie were very powerful and had the feel of the birth of legend. I would put Public Enemies a whisker behind Miami Vice at the moment.

    I wrote a little something on it myself at my blog:

    Again, I really enjoyed reading this.

  7. Now you've done it, Jake. You've convinced me to give "Public Enemies" -- which I had labeled a crushing disappointment -- another go. Great and very insightful post ... the depth of your film knowledge never ceases to astound me!

  8. Pretty nice post. I just came across your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really liked reading your posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you post again soon!