Thursday 25 June 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp and Christian Bale

The problem with Public Enemies is that it really doesn't know what it wants to be. The notes at the beginning and end of the film, along with the title itself, suggest that it aims to explore the phenomenon of public enemies generally during their golden age: who they were, what they did and how the forces of justice changed to be able to combat them. None of this is remotely surprising given that it's based on a non fiction work by Bryan Burrough called Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 and there are parts where this approach honestly seems to be the point. For most of the running time though, it forgets this utterly and becomes another John Dillinger biopic, apparently as a vehicle for Johnny Depp.

Now Depp is a peach of a choice for Dillinger, because he's managed to become the modern day epitome of the bad boy that the girls love, not just through his iconic Capt Jack Sparrow but through a string of morally dubious roles over many years in films often happily kept from undeserved obscurity because of his presence. Dillinger is a professional bank robber during the golden age of bank robbery who became a legend: 'public enemy number one' to some, a modern day Robin Hood to others. Needless to say Depp does a great job here and most of the film is happy to be there to give him the opportunity.

We begin in 1933, as Dillinger springs a number of his gang from the Indiana State Penitentiary in a daring escape plan that illustrates a number of key points right from the get go. Dillinger has only just been paroled from prison himself, eight weeks free after nine years in, and yet he's willing to jeopardise his freedom by committing a high profile crime breaking into the very same place he's just been released from. As the guards open fire on their escape, his cohorts run for cover while he stands there in the open defiantly holding his ground and firing back at them. He certainly has cojones, and while he doesn't want guards to die because they're just folks doing their job, he won't hesitate if he has to. And when one of his gang kills one for fun, he kicks him out of the car as they ride away.

As the film runs on and we see Dillinger and his gang in action in Chicago, we learn more about his character, which all comes down to 'tough but fair'. He gets the job done, whatever it takes. If that means killing people, so be it, but he leaves customers' money untouched during his robberies because he's there for the bank's money not theirs (incidentally a line repeated from Heat, an earlier film from director Michael Mann). He kidnaps people to aid his getaway but lets them go as soon as they're safe and clear, even leaving a young lady with his coat and hat to avoid the cold. Having Dillinger look like Johnny Depp can't hurt this public image, even with a notable scar on his cheek.

Now, as I mentioned, this isn't a Dillinger biopic, or at least its not supposed to be. It's about how the Bureau of Investigation became the Federal Bureau of Investigation and took on the public enemies and their habit of avoiding local law enforcement by crossing state lines in fast cars. Sure enough, we soon meet two key names in this organisation. One is the FBI's first director, J Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup as a weasel of a man without any field experience and who becomes obsessed with the apprehension of John Dillinger. He's a thug, a driven man playing up to the press about a war on crime but willing to bend or break the law to get what he wants.

The other is Special Agent Melvin Purvis, who Hoover puts in charge of his Chicago office after he takes down Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd. In the hands of Christian Bale, he is a sure and capable agent and a decent man, far more decent than many of the orders coming down to him from above. The authorities are not generally seen in a good light here, but some agents are given our clear sympathy, Purvis chief amongst them. We see a lot more of Purvis than Hoover as he pursues Dillinger and apparently comes across other public enemies entirely by accident during this quest.

What we watch, though not enough, is a battle between two men. Purvis has the powers of the FBI to bring to bear, which may not be much in 1933 but still include some of the best scientific and forensic skills anywhere in law enforcement. He also has what is quoted as the strong leadership of J Edgar Hoover, but presumably translates to the fact that Hoover, at one point, devoted a third of the entire budget of the FBI to the hunt for Dillinger. On Dillinger's side, he has a keen mind, not just for bank robbery but also for publicity. He cares what the public thinks because he has to hide among them. He's careful who he picks for his team, never working with someone he doesn't know or who is too desperate.

All this makes for a memorable cat and mouse game, which mostly stays rooted in reality, or what is at least believable as a replacement, but sometimes goes well beyond. There's a very effective scene close to the end where Dillinger walks into the Chicago PD office, into the Dillinger Squad room itself. This plays well for tension, given that we all know how the film is about to end anyway, but it doesn't play well for realism. Then again maybe we don't all know the film is going to end: one girl in the audience cried out aloud when Dillinger was shot, as if there's somehow a rule of cinema that states that Johnny Depp can't be killed because that would burst too many young girl fantasies.

Dillinger also makes some very dubious decisions in this story, not least the one where the FBI's public enemy number one pursues a hat check girl called Billie Frechette, half French and half Menomenee Indian. He takes her to a restaurant where the snobs look down at her three dollar dress, and when she asks what he does tells her that he robs banks because he's John Dillinger. Perhaps he was just that sure, but it doesn't ring true. And there's so much in this film that plays loose with the truth that we start to question everything.

This isn't good. A biopic of Dillinger has enough truth to make a fascinating film, let alone the myth and the legend that could be addressed, and merely reading up on a few details highlights how many liberties were taken here. For instance, Purvis was appointed to the Chicago office by President Herbert Hoover not J Edgar Hoover, and not because he'd taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, because that came three months after Dillinger's death. The death of Floyd is surrounded in controversy with three apparent versions, none of which match the one we see here.

And for a film called Public Enemies, this didn't need to be just about Dillinger either. We get to see a little of Baby Face Nelson, enough for us to wish we could see a lot more, and not as a spinoff movie either. Stephen Graham is memorable in the role and he should have been given more to do. We see the death of Pretty Boy Floyd but nothing of his life and we don't get to see anything of other notorious public enemies like Ma Barker and her brood or Bonnie and Clyde. I can't help but feel that the direction of the film was skewed and against its own better judgement too.

This isn't to say the film is all bad. Depp is excellent and Bale perhaps better, though he gets less depth to play with. A few of the supporting cast resonate, not least Stephen Lang as Agent Winstead, the man who actually takes Dillinger down. He's firmly on the Purvis side of law enforcement, an honorable man, honest and modest. When Billie Frechette asks him if he's the man who shot Dillinger, he says yes, one of them. He's a good point to finish the film.

What really impressed me was the sound, the lighting and the colour. The sound is blistering, the gunfights so crisp and pure that we feel like we're in them. The light generated by the firing weapons looks utterly unlike Hollywood, way too bright, just as they'd be in real life if opened up all at once in a dark room. They blind us and the echoes are palpable. It feels wrong for a movie, not because it's inappropriate but because it isn't what we expect. We expect guns to generate just enough light to show us the faces of the men firing them, not to be deluged in a battle of confusion. Had the ceiling tiles at the Scottsdale Fashion Square 7 fallen down on the audience during such a gunfight instead of after one, there could have been heart attacks. The ghost of William Castle would have cried out in approval, even if it wasn't deliberate.

As for colour, this film is dark, not just in tone but in actual levels of saturation. It works in muted shades most of the way so dark colours like blues and blacks become shades of grey and even Billie's dark red coat loses most of its colour. At night this is almost a black and white movie, albeit in much higher resolution than anything we'd see on TCM, and most of the film is at night. There are only a few daylight scenes in the 140 minute running time. One comes late on with Dillinger wearing a straw hat and pastel shades of blue, utterly but deliberately wrong. He's a creature of darkness not light, and he looks like an idiot out of his element.

And yet these technical choices, which are as powerful as they are refreshing, are married to camerawork that drove me nuts. Even by the time Dillinger rides away from the Indiana State Pen at the beginning of the film with the memorable line, 'Let's go to Chicago and make some money,' we've already inflicted with a lot of shaky hand held camerawork. There are clunky camera movements everywhere, some of which feel like the camera literally fell back into place at the wrong moment. There's choppy editing, suggesting that we're watching a rehearsal or a rough cut, making the film highly schizophrenic.

The epitome comes about halfway through. There's a small town jail scene where Dillinger and Purvis first meet that seems utterly low budget: painfully plain sets, stark lighting, no soundtrack at all. It feels like it was shot on video and any cheap cash-in porn version could shoot such a scene exactly the same without any real outlay. And suddenly we hit Hollywood. In the very next scene Dillinger is flown to Indiana and we're caught up in a wave of crowds, press flashes and sweeping music. There's a fleet of expensive cars, a large plane and accomplished cinematography which hints at the style of stock footage as well as I think I've ever seen done.

And this is all very conflicting. Scenes of clunkiness are followed by scenes of power. Scenes apparently present only to set up jokes to be quoted in the movie trailer are followed by scenes of great suspense, masterfully done. Michael Mann is a schizophrenic filmmaker, having made some of the greatest films ever to grace the screen but also some of the most confusing and ill advised. As examples, watch Manhunter, then watch The Keep, both of which he wrote and directed. One is utter unsurpassed genius, the other a mess incoherent even to someone who read the source novel right before watching the movie. I often wonder going into a Michael Mann movie which side of this coin I'm going to see. For perhaps the first time, here I saw both at once.

1 comment:

Dee said...

I'll agree with you on most of this one, but again i'll say the camera work didn't bother me as much as it did you, and i still enjoyed the movie for the most part.