When the time came for Public Enemies, Michael Mann was ready to make the film that would secure his place as one of the great American filmmakers.
John Dillinger’s career as the most famous and arguably the most successful bank robber in American history is perfect material for a Hollywood movie. Dillinger was loved by the American public, he was charismatic and honest, and his reign as Public Enemy No. 1 lasted a mere 13 months. His story is brought to life in Public Enemies, which is brilliantly directed by Michael Mann and stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger in probably his most convincing performance yet.
The film takes place in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression when J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is attempting to create the first federal police force (later to be named the Federal Bureau of Investigation) that has the authority to arrest criminals who cross state lines. The film shows John Dillinger (Depp) and his crew as they rob bank after bank with the accuracy of surgeons, leaving very little to chance or room for mistakes. The man put in charge of capturing Dillinger is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who is appointed by Hoover in an effort to secure funding for his bureau.
The cat-and-mouse chase between Purvis and Dillinger shows just how poorly coordinated the authorities at the time were and how smart and risky Dillinger was. Dillinger clearly only thought as far ahead as the next score, and Depp shows that even though he could enjoy a dinner with friends or a day at the track, he was never at ease or off his guard. Dillinger is all smiles and handshakes but always has one eye on the closest exit, and never gets so wrapped up in celebration that he forgets his surroundings.
The only time Dillinger is ever vulnerable is when he meets the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), whom he puts ahead of everything else. Right from the start she’s "his girl," and he makes it clear that she is the most important person in his life. Cotillard wonderfully follows up her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in what could easily have been simply the role of Dillinger’s girlfriend. Instead, she imbues Billie with a personality and feistiness all her own, and especially shines when she shares the screen with Depp.
No one will argue that Depp is one of the most talented actors working today, and that his career is one of the finest and most impressive of all time. In Public Enemies he once again disappears into his role as Dillinger. It’s very likely that many people will fail to see how wonderful his performance is simply because he makes it look so effortless. In fact, this is Depp’s most well-researched performance yet. He came into the production with vast amounts of knowledge about his character, and throughout production was able to walk where Dillinger walked and use the same suitcase and clothes Dillinger left behind. Depp is known for his very diverse characters and colorful performances; here, though, he is just playing a man. No accent, no makeup, and no over-the-top costumes to hide behind; it is Depp at his most exposed, and he is excellent.
Mann must also be given credit for the unique style of the film. He captures the frenetic nature of Dillinger’s escapades through handheld camerawork during the robberies and shootouts, which makes the audience a part of the action. Mann is also patient and reserved when the story needs to be told and relies on his fantastic cast to tell the story.
A number of people are likely to make comparisons between Public Enemies and Mann’s Heat, which has a very similar plot and structure. While this is fair to point out, I like to think that Heat was merely a learning experience for Mann so that, when the time came for Public Enemies, he was ready to make the film that would secure his place as one of the great American filmmakers. | Matthew F. Newlin