Movie Review: Public Enemies

June 29, 2009

On July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was gunned down by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Ill. The notorious outlaw, who had masterminded at least 24 bank robberies and two jailbreaks, had been brought to justice at last, betrayed by the mysterious Lady in Red.

To a nation mired in the Great Depression, Dilinger’s exploits, sensationally reported in the media, seemed to be those of a latter-day Robin Hood. Those escapades form the subject of “Public Enemies,” the latest in a string of neo-noir crime flicks from director Michael Mann (“Miami Vice,” “Collateral”), starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, based on a nonfiction book of the same title.

Depp seems to bring some of his own experience to bear in portraying Dillinger, who was in his own time every bit as much a celebrity – and a heartthrob – as any Hollywood star. As played by Depp, Dillinger is not only aware, but proud of, his growing legend: “Of course I care what the public thinks about me,” he says to an associate. “They’re where I hide out.” His looks, charm and audacity sweep the audience off their feet even before they do so to Billie Frechette (Academy Award-winning French actress Marion Cotillard), the woman whose love prompts Dillinger to risk everything.

As Purvis, Bale delivers a characteristically tightly-wound performance as a single-minded cop, contending not only against Dillinger and fellow hoodlums such as Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, but also the politically ambitious, publicity-hungry J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who is determined to establish his newly-formed FBI as the nation’s supreme law enforcement agency, by any means necessary.

“Public Enemies” is a solid and stylish film from beginning to end, mixing car chases, shootouts and double-crosses with a surprisingly touching love story. If the film suffers at all, it is only by comparison to the prior achievements of its director and lead actor.

Watching Depp escape from jail by bluffing guards with a wooden gun (a feat the real Dillinger carried off) before encouraging a hostage to join him in a sing-along as they escape in a stolen car, it was hard for this reviewer not to be distracted by memories of Depp’s turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. Similarly, the narrative thrust of “Public Enemies” — a robber with a code of honor, seeking redemption in a woman’s love and struggling to keep one step ahead of a driven lawman — are those of Mann’s own critically praised 1994 film “Heat.”

But where “Public Enemies” truly excels is in capturing a moment in American history that helped lay the foundations of present-day society. On the one hand, we see the birth of the surveillance state, as the FBI experiments with wiretapping phones and “third degree” interrogations in ways that foreshadow modern scandals. On the other, the transformation of organized crime from Prohibition-era mafiosos to modern white-collar criminals, seamlessly integrated into society — leaving flashy renegades like Dillinger between a rock and a hard place. As portrayed in this film, his fall is as much the work of the mob closing ranks against him as it is the result of Purvis’ manhunt.

In one scene, a mob associate informs Dillinger that his robberies have endangered their illegal gambling operations. Ushered into a “wire service” strewn with ringing phones and stacks of paper, where bookmakers take bets from coast to coast, Depp’s horrified expression speaks volumes: this isn’t crime, the look on his face says, it’s office work – and he wants none of it. That moment captures much of Dillinger’s appeal, then and now. In an era when the Old West was still a living memory, he was the last of the cowboys, the men who would rather die than be fenced in.

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