The historical detail is sharp. The lead performance is captivating. The story is interesting. It's certainly one of the better films in theaters right now. But there's something missing with Public Enemies, director Michael Mann's eagerly anticipated take on the Depression-era gangster flick.
Public Enemies is a polished, precise period crime drama, but it lacks the emotional heft or even (despite its 140-minute length and multitude of locations) epic sweep of Heat, Mann's previous cops-and-robbers classic. Those expecting a period repeat of Mann's earlier masterwork are likely to leave disappointed.
Despite a Cagney-esque supporting turn from Stephen Graham as the volatile Baby Face Nelson, Public Enemies doesn't have the crackle of the best classic Hollywood gangster movies. Rather than an updated genre flick, Public Enemies is an attempt at an accessible art-movie version of the familiar story — self-aware, psychological, dreamy in parts.
Based on the non-fiction bestseller Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934, there are a lot of ideas in play in Mann's film, which follows 1930s' gangsters, most notably bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), as they're pursued by federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
Public Enemies captures the gangster-as-antihero ideal, showing how Dillinger was perceived as a Depression-era Robin Hood by some and an alluring celebrity by many. The graceful thief is athletic and charismatic in action (the film depicts both of Dillinger's jailbreaks and a few of his bank robberies), and careful about whom he technically steals from, telling one customer, "Keep that. I'm here for the bank's money not yours." Early on, he dismisses a kidnapping idea because "the public doesn't like kidnapping." After one arrest, Dillinger gazes out the window as pedestrians crowd the streets and wave at the convoy of police cars taking him to jail. In cuffs, he gives an impromptu press conference with an opportunistic, starstruck district attorney's arm draped over his shoulder.
But Public Enemies undercuts this allure with the theme of gangster as endangered species, forcibly driven out of existence by both an increasingly sophisticated and publicity-seeking law-enforcement structure and a criminal underworld that thinks such bloody exploits are ultimately bad for business. The former is embodied by clean-cut lawman Purvis and his benefactor, a young J. Edgar Hoover played with surprising effectiveness by Billy Crudup. On the criminal side, is Frank Nitti (Bill Camp), the one-time Al Capone associate who'd rather run numbers and prostitutes without all the publicity generated by bank robberies.
"What we're doing won't last forever," an associate tells Dillinger midway through the film. Dillinger smiles and responds, "We're having too much fun today to think about tomorrow."
In identifying with Dillinger without ignoring his danger (and playing the charisma of Depp against the square-jaw monotone of Bale), Mann is making a knowing but still romantic gangster film, a cinema equivalent of the folk ballads that turned Depression-era outlaws into mythic figures. And he literalizes the romantic underpinnings by trying to make Public Enemies something of a love story as well, with a somewhat forced central storyline about Dillinger falling for Chicago coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
The love-interest angle doesn't really cohere, but it does set up a lovely, presumably fanciful ending where Billie meets the imported Texas lawman that has killed Dillinger. The brief scene between the two amounts to Mann — a fundamentally conservative director — choosing to print the legend, and embracing values of the past in a movie about modernization.