November Issue 2009
John Herbert Dillinger was a household name in the 1930s, infamous for his criminal chutzpah. While he may have shown bravado in his bank robberies, he obviously did not want to stand out in public too much: he had become one of America’s most wanted. It was probably difficult for Dillinger to remain low-key, though, as he had achieved celebrity status. He was a hero to many disgruntled and disillusioned Americans during the Great Depression, for he was a man who took what he wanted. It is the exploration of the private side of Dillinger, though, that is the most fascinating part of the biopic Public Enemies.
Old photos of Dillinger show a man with a hardened face. When he wasn’t staring into the camera with a mobster-like coldness, he had a slight smirk on his face. Depp captures this aspect of the Depression-era criminal nicely. On screen, Depp shows us a professional robber who is arrogant, condemnatory of others and possesses a strong sense of entitlement.
Depp’s impressive performance also shows the tough, vicious side of Dillinger. This comes through in Dillinger’s democratic dispensation of violence to those tracking him and to those in his gang who let him down. As a result, Dillinger became not just a bank robber but also a murderer.
Dillinger’s time in the headlines was rather short: less than a year, from late 1933 to mid-1934. But during that time he grabbed the national headlines. The US Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI), led by a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), made nabbing Dillinger a priority. Hoover appointed a hotshot agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), to lead the search. Purvis was a hands-on investigator who used a combination of new scientific crime-fighting methods and firepower to stop a rising wave of criminals in their tracks.
In Public Enemies, we get little sense why Dillinger turned out to be the man he was. Biographers talk about his motherless childhood, then a stepmother he detested and, of course, a long prison sentence for a small-time robbery, but the movie doesn’t. The film mentions a mentor and his wise teachings, but nothing is revealed about that relationship — one that undoubtedly shaped his thinking on society and criminal strategy. We do see his quick rise, his almost fatalistic attitude and the woman, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who helped accelerate his even quicker fall.
Through jailbreaks, bank heists, a parade of the era’s notorious gangsters and shootouts, director Michael Mann gives audiences an unsurprisingly violent film. But this adds little to the excitement or speed of the movie. This movie drags. Few of the characters are compelling (Hoover is a caricature and Bale’s Purvis shows little evolution). And even at over two hours, this film unfortunately tells us little we didn’t already know about Dillinger.
Sadly, despite the immaculately composed shots and authentic feel, Mann’s film doesn’t create the drama achieved in his successes Collateral and The Insider. Even Depp, while solid, doesn’t hit the standard of his portrayals of Jack Sparrow and Gilbert Grape.
There is a standout element of the movie though (besides the shot of girls going dreamy-eyed over Dillinger as if he was a rock star). It is a song. Otis Taylor’s “Ten Million Slaves” is a twangy ode to early southern blues that has a driving tempo that perks up an otherwise yawner of a film.