Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies: Once Again, Gangsters With a Heart

Released as the summer’s high-brow alternative to dumbass comedies such as Year One and kiddy blockbusters like Transformers, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies makes a valiant attempt to deliver first-class entertainment to the content-starved summer moviegoer. Even though I think it largely falls short of that goal, it’s worth keeping on your radar for a future DVD release.

The film boasts an array of talented stars giving studiously crafted performances - Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor. The story works valiantly to create a Screnwriting-text approved plot, with nice parallelism being John Dillinger (Depp) and his criminal buddies and special Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) and his boss J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup), who share more than a love of adventure, need for public adoration, and grandiose self-image with their criminal counterparts as Hoover‘s G-Men attempt to round up the annoying bank robbers who, along with their organized crime buddies, seem to be the only high-rollers around during the bleak 1930‘s. And the direction focuses in on key moments - a casual arrest at the Motel Congress in Tucson or a protracted shoot-out at a Wisconsin motel - to delve deeper into the tensions and tribulations of the warring parties. So there's a lot going for this film, and I was rooting for it to deliver.

And the movie certainly wants to be taken seriously. Public Enemies relies heavily on the first word in its title for its theme. The first bank robbery we see, Dillinger leaves the customer’s money and rides away from the robbery with a bevy of hostages who are more titillated by the adventure than scared. He’s a robber who’s more concerned with maintaining his popular public image than with increasing his profit margins. Yet have no illusions: this Robin Hood robs from the rich and keeps it for himself. When he begins an affair with the pure-hearted-but-spunky coat-check girl (Cotillard), you know that it’s his heart that will ultimately get him in trouble.

The same applies for Bale’s Purvis, a can-do field agent who we first see chasing down Pretty Boy Floyd through the woods of Indiana. Purvis gets his man, and does it with no nonsense; yet his boss, J. Edgar, rivals Dillinger for his love of the public spotlight, which can leave Purvis feeling, at times, compromised. And even if Purvis is fearless for his own safety, he will hesitate, it seems, when it comes to the life of his men.

Which of these two - Dillinger or Purvis - will overcome their Achilles heel first to out-tough the other is something of a predetermined question, if we know anything at all about history. So the enjoyment in this film needs to be in the ride of how we get there, and what we learn along the way. The best thing going here is the art direction, which re-creates 1930's culture with such assiduous and continuously enjoyable detail: whether it be the keystone-cops quality to the armed infantrymen guarding Dillinger’s cell or the tins of tuna that supply Dillinger’s sojourns in safe-houses in rural Indiana, the atmosphere of the film is deliciously authentic, and adds to right touch of brightness and macho posturing to the perilous sensibility of the 1930's. The film is at it's best when it's visually explaining the contradictions of this time: the descent of decent folk into an era of poverty and spectacular criminality, all while preserving a veneer of civilization. Incidental radio programs of citizens complaining of ineffectual government; the delicious thrill of Hoover’s Movietones asking the cinema audience to obliviously “look left” and “look right” to spot the “most wanted” even while Dillinger is sitting, hiding in plain view in their midst.

Yet despite all the promise, some mysterious ingredient never quite catches hold, and the film never becomes more than the sum of its parts. Certainly part of this may simply be that the loveable gangster meme has been pretty well exhausted in popular culture. From Bonnie and Clyde through to the Sopranos, there’s rather little new here in portrayal of John Dillinger as a raffish criminal touched with bouts of charity and sentimentality, and whose fate as the country‘s most notorious criminal is destined to catch up to him. Even with great performance, fascinating art direction, and a competent screenplay, there’re too many saggy sections of the film, which could have been trimmed by at least twenty minutes.

For all the firearms and fuss, we get barely more insight into what makes Dillinger tick than a short scene where he walks unnoticed into the very FBI office that’s tracking him, looking at the FBI stakeout pictures of himself while he goes unnoticed to the Feds in the room. The irony here is delicious, but preciously thin for a movie that asks us to take it so seriously.

The movie may be worth a go - especially in the waning days of summer when there's precious little else of substance - but ultimately, who Dillinger is and why he’s driven to the limelight remains at least as mysterious as, say, our own celebrity contemporaries, and what we end up learning about him pales in comparison to what we already know about our own public oddities: like, for instance, Michael Jackson.

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