Don’t Believe the Hype

07/01/2009 4:00 AM |

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann

Just as outlaw John Dillinger hides in plain sight throughout much of Public Enemies, so has Michael Mann made something approaching an art film in the guise of a star-struck big-budget summer movie tapping Depression-era chic. There are blazing shootouts, and Christian Bale technically co-stars with Johnny Depp, but Mann’s latest mobilization of the Hollywood apparatus is really about a fugitive legend as much as about the legendary fugitive. Long before the final shot is fired at the Biograph Theatre where Manhattan Melodrama plays, Depp’s Dillinger becomes more of a Dead Man walking than brash gangster wielding a tommy gun.

Opening with a 1933 prison breakout spare and cluttered by turns, Public Enemies proceeds through Dillinger’s bank robberies with other gunslinging all-stars like Baby Face Nelson, shadowed by a resourceful manhunt by FBI mastermind J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and executed on the ground by agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Playing to the press, squirming out of police clutches, Dillinger is most focused with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) whom he makes his romantic ideal. She sensibly enough is surprised at his openness, then respectful of his tragic impunity; he conveys confidence and zeal, yet with the barest touch of desperation.

Like Mann’s last two films, Collateral and Miami Vice, Public Enemies is partly an aggressive experiment in HD-mediated style, to a new purpose. Unlike those films’ tube-paint gleam against dazzling canvases, DP Dante Spinotti’s era-appropriate shades in the new film are counterpointed by translucent close-ups by day, especially of Depp and company, which give a ghostly aspect where one might expect faded snapshots. And for all the bravura wonkiness of bank interiors and neat rows of desks at a numbers operation (or a courtroom scene featuring The Wire‘s Brian Gerety doing a perfect reedy-wavering radio voice as Dillinger’s attorney), there are also remarkable instances of minimalism: one embrace between Dillinger and Billie occurs in a near-lunar landscape, as does an exterior of the prison in the opening scene.

It’s such moments, along with selective sound drop-offs, that led one colleague to dub the film Brechtian, and there’s definitely something more to Dillinger’s extraordinary anonymous tour through police HQ than mere nose-thumbing. Backgrounded by a whole population of supporting cast, the Depp/Bale face-off remains but a tantalizing concept pitting two modes of masculinity, with Depp a show of soft cool. Bale, stuck once again a la The Dark Knight with referencing torture debates, gets across a do-right brutality, but his rigidity and self-enamored vocal antics pins him as the next Kevin Spacey. As for Depp/Cotillard, it’s hard to feel the magic; there’s neither a sloppy swaggering desire nor nocturnal cool, though Cotillard looks, suggestively, prettiest in jail. Like all Mann’s films, Public Enemies oozes mood, and its sense of suspension in time and myth is wondrous strange.

Opens July 1

Plus: Justin Stewart on Dillinger in the movies.

5 Comment

  • Pearl Jam’s integrity and sincerity makes it hard to like them ironically. which is a problem for the 00’s listener.

  • or integrity and sincerity alone do not make for a very good band. for any listener, in any decade.

  • Hum, Mike Conklin jogged my memory with this article as far as the radio show, here is a link with full transcript of the second radio show:… There was also a first show which was only hour long and followed a live concert broadcast on apr 3. 1994, according to that website, from Fox Theater.

    No Code I think that album stayed in my wake-up radio for 6 months straight, probably listened to that album over 100 times, favorite track – “Smile”. Yield has “Given to Fly” and “Wish List” back to back, looking at the list now, that is a great album in my book. Anyway, yes somebody out there loves those albums. I was already in college (in my early 20s) when PJ first came out so that’s the perspective I’m coming from, not like I’m in the Ten Club or anything like that. I didn’t care for Avocado (I think I only listened to it twice), but probably will check out this new one soon…

  • “Or, wait, did No Code come before Yield?” Mike in journalism you’ll find this tremendous tool called research. I realize you’re trying to be smarmy (and it’s working) but by god if you respect your writing I promise others will too. Until that day I’m afraid we’ll have to weather your 13 year old musings until the next Sasha Frere Jones article about the Dave Matthews Band. It’s not that anyone who was older than 13 in 1992 disagrees with you, it’s just that we’ve figured this all out 10 years ago. Welcome to adulthood Mike, we’ve been waiting for you.

  • You should listen to Vitalogy, it is awesome and pretty much the enduring reason that I want to believe rock critics who talk about how the new album is the best one since Vitalogy (granted, this is dumb of me, as rock critics say this about any band with more than two albums who has just released an album). That’s not to say I think the new Pearl Jam stuff is bad; it’s just really forgettable. The first bunch of songs on Backspacer are pretty decent, but those lyrics and song titles as the record goes on… meh-to-yikes. The last record was pretty underwhelming, too, considering how much I wanted to like it.

    I think the problem, as I’m pretty sure another review pointed out, is that Pearl Jam, for all of their rock&roll cred, is a lot more interesting when they’re going mid-tempo/down-tempo/experimental, as opposed to straight-ahead rockers. At the time, No Code (which did follow Vitalogy) seemed kind of shambling and disjointed and lacking the big rock moments, but that record is way more interesting than what they’re doing now. They’ve always been a slightly workmanlike band — that’s part of their appeal, I think — but that quality has only built up with time.

    Vitalogy is great, though — nice mix and ballads and harder rock and weird stuff. No fair calling Vs. the best one until you’ve heard it all the way through.