Simultaneously a tough guy and a sap, a realist and a romantic, director Michael Mann has for decades now been making movies about what it means to be a man. He chooses to tell these stories in familiar settings, setting his fairly measured character studies in the kind of testosterone-soaked milieu that has been favored by a century of manly filmmakers. Mann has made movies about cops and robbers. There’s one about a cab driver and an assassin, one about a whistleblower and another about a great athlete. He’s even made a supernatural horror movie set among Nazis. But he keeps returning to the subject of heroes and villains, about the role-playing that takes place when good guys go head-to-head with bad guys, and about what happens when the line between antagonist and protagonist gets blurred.
There’s another duality to Michael Mann’s career, and that’s his straddling of the line between pop filmmaking and personal cinema. A contemplative, mournful movie like Heat, with its perverse near-non-pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, spectacular bank-robbery shootout sequence, and spacey soundtrack, plays on the commercial side of that line. Miami Vice, which seemed to borrow the most striking aspects of its visual strategy and editorial rhythms — not to mention love interest Gong Li — from cutting-edge Asian filmmakers, may have fallen just on the other side of the divide, alienating mainstream audiences through its exquisite strategy of building tension by exploring emotion and mood in expressionist terms and using violence only sparingly. The balancing act allows him to continue securing studio financing for high-end productions that are part glossy thriller and part existential treatise.
Public Enemies dances right down the middle of that road, unpacking the legend of John Dillinger into an uncommonly lyrical biopic that focuses not just on the stuff of Dillinger’s reputation — bank robberies, prison escapes, and national celebrity — but on what Mann and his co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman (working from a book by Bryan Burrough) imagine to be the outlaw’s touchstone relationship with coat-check girl Billie Frechette. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger as a magnetic, wisecracking gentleman gangster with a twinkle in his eye, a gun under his coat and a smirk never far from his lips. And Cotillard, who arthouse audiences may or may not recognize from her Oscar-winning portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, imagines Billie as a tough but humble woman who’s well aware of her modest origins (half French and half Native American, she feels an outsider) and recognizes an opportunity when she sees one. (Her French accent is evident and unfortunate — I kept trying to figure out if the film meant to indicate that she was a recent immigrant, but it turns out that’s not the case.)
Depp and Cotillard don’t have a great amount of what movie critics like to call chemistry, but they don’t need it. Each of their characters is important to the other not as a person, but for what they offer. For Frechette, becoming Dillinger’s girl offers her an escape — from poverty, from marginalization, or even from less worthy suitors. (That this hardened murderer is what the ladies sometimes refer to as “a good catch” is one of the film’s wry amusements.) And for Dillinger, keeping her under his wing gives him a purpose, something tangible. The PR-savvy Dillinger, who at one point kindly (but clearly cynically) notifies a terrified customer turning over his pocket cash during a bank robbery that he’s not after his money, obviously gets a kick out of his Depression-era notoriety as a sort of Robin Hood figure, and Frechette is not only a pretty face but an opportunity for chivalry in a very non-chivalrous profession.
The other major character in the saga is Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent leading the push to apprehend Dillinger dead or alive. Christian Bale’s portrayal suggests — not so far from Batman after all — a brooding but committed and competent lawman whose efforts are thwarted by incompetence at the local law-enforcement level (Depp escapes from one jail by brandishing a phony firearm) and empty grandstanding at the federal level, as J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is willing to dedicate budget resources to catching Dillinger, but fails to appreciate the necessity for bringing a tougher, more experienced force to bear on the problem. Again, there’s not much effort to develop any kind of give and take between Purvis and Dillinger, which is another reflection of Mann’s tendency to isolate his characters emotionally rather than bringing them together. What Public Enemies has to say about law enforcement isn’t related to the agents’ interactions with Dillinger, but to the actions they take as they try, and repeatedly fail, to capture him. It’s here that Mann’s consideration of American macho expands to include 21st century politics. Dillinger and his cohorts are constantly scrutinized via wiretaps, but clueless FBI agents unknowingly walk past Dillinger on the street; an especially determined agent resorts to his fists to get a prisoner to talk, but all that flows is blood and bad information; an overzealous field operation ends with not just the killing of several innocents but also the escape of the targeted criminals. Only the recruitment of experienced, but sometimes thuggish, agents from the Wild West turns the tide against Dillinger. In the repeated failure of these well-intentioned but clumsy methodologies might be read, on some level, a parody of tactics in the U.S. war on terror.
Much has been made of Mann’s decision to use HD cameras to shoot what’s essentially a period piece, and I admit that I was a little stymied at first, as cinematographer Dante Spinotti seemed to be struggling to use the cameras to do what film does, only not nearly as well. When you shoot with a video camera, the highlights tend to blow out, which means you lose detail in the brightest parts of the frame, and not only are facial bumps and pores highlighted by the sharpness — I’d like to say harshness — of the image, but skin can take on an almost waxy tone. Put it this way: you get a really good look at Johnny Depp in this film, but he looks less perfect than you’ve seen him before. That can be a good thing, I suppose, in a film that’s partly about the nature of celebrity circa 1933, but I miss the softer qualities of film.
There are other characteristics of video cameras that appeal to Mann. One of them is their extraordinary ability to see into the dark, offering a view in the shadows that may more closely approximate the kind of image that human eyes are able to perceive when looking out over a nighttime cityscape or into the black woods. As Public Enemies proceeds, more of the story takes place, appropriately, at night, or under very controlled lighting set-ups, and that’s where the HD image starts to work very well for the story, bringing out the details. And the video camera used here (the Sony F23) has an imaging chip that’s significantly smaller than a frame of 35mm film, which changes the optical properties of the image — specifically, you get deeper focus. That’s not good for what’s sometimes known as that “cinematic” look — the movies often revel in shallow depth-of-field effects, where only a small part of an image is in focus and objects in the foreground and background are soft and diffuse — but it seems to have been part of what Mann was after in lensing these meticulously art-directed period settings. Certainly it brings into focus the authentic locations where Mann shot key scenes — the jail from which Dillinger executed an expert escape; the Wisconsin lodge where he holed up in advance of a botched FBI raid; and the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where his story ends.
When I saw the movie, that final confrontation between Dillinger and the pursuers who dogged him for those 13 months from May of 1933 to July of 1934 created a little shock wave, accompanied by a chorus of quiet whispers, that spread through the theater. I thought to myself, “Really? You couldn’t see that coming?” But what that reaction underscored was that, for all the ways Mann’s filmmaking might fail the multiplex audience — the occasionally incomprehensible action scenes, the somewhat elleptical storytelling, the fragmented, impressionistic sex scene — there are even more ways in which it grips the imagination, some of them quite unexpected. Eventually, a film that can feel as emotionally remote as an episode of CSI springs to subtle life. Despite some brilliant passages and a low-key but top-drawer performance by Depp, Public Enemies doesn’t really hit its stride until about the final half-hour — the last handful of big scenes are just amazingly good, building their power from all the details that have come before. When Dillinger, hiding out near the end of his career, offers on a whim to drive Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski) into town, there’s a feeling that something must be about to go wrong. Instead, the scene that ensues illustrates the man’s formidable charm and self-confidence in grand style. There’s a similarly sharp character note involving Brechette’s interrogation at the hands of a FBI man who behaves like a criminal. And the very last scene is, I think, just right. This romance is a real romance; these clichés are good clichés. The result is a conflicting and haunting experience. It sticks with you.