Maybe it's because our country was founded by a band of upstart revolutionaries, but Americans have always had a soft spot for rebels— the people who defy authority in one way or another. Sometimes that means criminals, as in the depths of the Depression, when John Dillinger blazed across the Midwest attacking the ultimate hated authority symbols, the fat-cat banks that were blamed for destroying the lives of so many ordinary citizens.
Not that Dillinger acted on behalf of the victimized masses, of course; he was just out to make a dishonest buck for himself. But as Michael Mann's Public Enemies makes clear, Dillinger wasn't merely in it for the money: He reveled in the thrill of besting the good guys—especially since, as Mann also shows us, many of them weren't really all that good, compensating for their shameful lack of basic competence with casual brutality.
Sure, Dillinger and his crew robbed banks and were pretty loose about waving around their Thompson submachine guns. But the cops and Feds couldn't even pull off a routine arrest without turning it into a bloodbath involving innocent civilians.
The moral ambiguities and parallel lives of cops and robbers have provided Mann with the central theme of many of his works, from his scripts for TV crime shows in the 1970s, to his masterminding of the influential (and greatly underrated) "Miami Vice," to his feature films like Thief, Manhunter, Heat and Collateral. So he's in very comfortable territory with Public Enemies, comparing and contrasting the exuberantly anarchic Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) and the straitlaced, grimly determined Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
Weighing Dillinger vs. Hoover
As was the case in Mann's masterpiece crime saga, Heat, the lines between good and bad, purity and evil, are never clear; they continually shift, fade away, come back into focus, and sometimes disappear altogether, which makes the ambiguity and plural form of the film's title quite apt. Maybe Dillinger was officially declared "Public Enemy Number 1," but unofficially, as the film's title makes clear, he wasn't the only one.
Who, the film implicitly asks, are the real "public enemies"? Dillinger, the bank robber who, while certainly a murderer, kills only when forced to and refuses to take money from a poor man ("I'm here for the bank's money, not your money-- put that away")? Or J. Edgar Hoover's Feds, who blithely slaughter innocent bystanders without verifying their identity and think nothing of beating up women or torturing wounded suspects for information? In Mann's view, a convincing case can be made either way.
No false sympathy
Mann wastes no time trying to elicit our sympathy for Dillinger by evoking a broken home or an unhappy childhood or any other facile excuse for criminality; we meet Dillinger up front as the shrewd master criminal he was. Mann's films are often misunderstood initially because he never takes his audience by the hand to explain things or warn us what's coming; he simply throws you head first into the deep end of the narrative pool and trusts that you're smart enough to start swimming.
We don't need to know what made Dillinger a criminal (who takes hostages, then invariably lets them go unharmed, sometimes with a souvenir) or what made Melvin Purvis a dedicated lawman (who isn't afraid to cross the ethical line when it's expedient). What matters is what happens when these two diametrically opposed forces clash.
A Wild West relic in the 1930s
Depp's Dillinger is already a glorious anachronism in 1930s Depression America, a relic of the Wild West trying to survive in a world that's rapidly overwhelming and surpassing him— on both sides of the law. Purvis and his FBI men track down Dillinger using new "scientific" investigative techniques championed by Hoover: phone taps, intelligence collection on a nationwide scale, fingerprints and Bertillon files.
Meanwhile, Dillinger's compatriots— also using modern technology like the phone system— are in the process of organizing criminal syndicates with national reach, spreading their tentacles subtly and surreptitiously into legitimate businesses that, as one mobster explains to Dillinger, rake in more cash in one day than Dillinger can steal after months of careful planning. Even if we didn't already know what was coming, Dillinger's dark fate is only a matter of time.
Attention to detail
That fate, when it finally catches up with Dillinger in Public Enemies, comes in a suspenseful and yet oddly poetic set piece that owes its success in equal parts to Mann's filmmaking skill and his attention to detail (boasting an amazingly meticulous recreation of the Biograph Theater and its 1934 neighborhood), to Dante Spinotti's photography, and of course to the performances of Depp and Bale, not to mention the rest of this cast.
Dillinger knew his wild ride couldn't last forever. But at least in the world of Public Enemies, he rode it out to the end, knowing that along the way, he'd also proven to Purvis, Hoover and the public that some "enemies" are worse than others, and that public enemies can be found on both sides of the law.â—†
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