Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat. So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.
The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).
Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.
Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).
Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.
Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.
In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.
Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.
Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow. Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.
In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann (via In Contention). Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.
According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).
In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”
While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat’s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliché of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.
Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.
What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down. Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”). Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.
A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.
Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a charismatic but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.
Must read: Neville Brody’s fave film fonts and opening sequences, from The Guardian