Review: Public Enemies
PLOT: Jailed for nine years for a petty crime, bank robber and folk hero of the Great Depression, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is finally free. He breaks out his friends and off they go, robbing banks and spectacularly avoiding the cops. On the hunt for Dillinger is the top agent of the newly-created FBI is agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Under intense pressure from J. Edgar Hoover, Purvis pursues Dillinger with increasingly ugly methods.
REVIEW: I think sometimes, when people are really excited about a subject, and spend a lot of time immersed in that world, it's easy to forget that other people aren't. I think that's what happened here. I'm fascinated by Dillinger now, but before the film, I really didn't know much about him. I normally do a ton of research, read the book, study the subject. But this time, I thought I'd see a film a little bit differently. Experience it as a brand new story. And what I got from that was the same feeling you get when you walk into the middle of a conversation. I was a bit lost.
The film sticks to the last fourteen months of John Dillinger's life and I think it suffers a bit for it. I didn't know who it was being dragged along the road in the beginning. I didn't know who each of his associates and partners in crime were until well into the film. And I have to say, not knowing what each death meant to the main characters robbed me of what I believe was the experience Michael Mann intended the viewer to have. There was an assumption of knowledge on the part of the viewer that will not be there for many people. I didn't feel connected to the characters until the second half of the film. I feel like I missed out. This man was a folk hero during the Depression. He had the latest gadgets, like the Tommy gun and the brand new V8 engine. Like a modern day Robin Hood, he never took money from individuals. Just the banks. I read up on him when I got home that night, and now I feel like I know who this man was.
Depp and Bale gave performances worthy of a more engrossing film. They did such extensive research into the backgrounds of their characters, according to both the press notes and the interviews we did with them, that they brought a profound sense of truth to the film. Unfortunately, it it couldn't make me fall in love with them as characters because I had nothing to base it on. I felt like I was seeing the last night of a three night mini-series, or starting a book at chapter ten. Dillinger's loyal girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) was the only character that really had a clear backstory, and subsequently, she stood out. I kept waiting for her to reappear on the screen, and believe me, in a movie with Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, that is pretty shocking. Particularly notable is the scene with Billie in the police station. I don't want to give away what happens, but she is just radiant. And finding out that it really did happen that way gives it more meaning.
And then there is the HD issue. Mann has been a proponent of shooting in HD, controversial as it is to some people. I'm a fan of HD for the most part, though here it seemed a bit stark. The clarity certainly gives you a sense that you're right there, but for people who are used to costume dramas or period pieces feeling like a distant fantasy or a moving painting, this might be a bit off-putting. I heard a few people saying just that as they left the theater. I'm not sure whether it was the starkness of the HD where I didn't expect it or just the lack of connection, but the whole thing felt emotionally distant until the very end. It was visually beautiful, and the gun battles were amazing, but overall, it just left me cold.
Does it sound like I'm going back and forth? Praising it and critiquing it, changing between sentences? Well, that's exactly how I felt about the film. Great performances, great camera work, but just not engrossing. It did accomplish one thing though. It made me want to go read a book on Dillinger so I can be moved in the way I should have been by the film.
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