Posted July 7, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Public Enemies: Spectacular Direction and Acting, So-So Story

“Public Enemies” is extraordinarily well directed and acted, but the screenplay does not have much to say.

Director Michael Mann continues to experiment with cinematography and general direction in a thrilling way. Equally inspiring is his remarkable skill with actors. One would expect a gripping performance from Johnny Depp (who plays real-life 1930s bank robber John Dillinger). Where Mann really astounds is in his direction of the minor characters and even the extras. Everyone who walks on screen has been prepared beautifully to convey character, time period, class, region, mood, etc. You can see a whole world in every person, so much so that you yearn for 10 sequels so that all of these characters can be explored.

Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the federal agent who led the team that eventually killed Dillinger. We learn almost nothing about Purvis, but he’s brought to life so compellingly that one cannot help but want to know more. I even wanted to learn more about the officers on Purvis’s team. Mann coached them to develop characters as much as he coached Depp and Bale, and these unknown actors delivered in spades.

Mann’s approach to cinematography here is quite radical. I didn’t find the radicalism always successful, but at times it was sublime. The courage to innovate and experiment was thrilling to see. Whereas most directors choose one approach and stick to it throughout a film, Mann had four or five strategies at work simultaneously. Some scenes were shot using different techniques, and the diverse footage was then woven together to create a unique cinematic tapestry. Some of the strategies were imperfect, but it was exhilarating to see creativity in every shot and every cut.

One of Mann’s most unusual choices was frequently to use a guerrilla-filmmaking style, with hand-held cameras and limited lighting. Often I felt Mann himself was jumping in the getaway car with Dillinger and his gang. Rarely does a director experience the action on the same level as the characters. Film stock, lighting, and sound also vary in interesting ways. At times, “Public Enemies” looks like it was shot on relatively cheap videocameras. Then a scene will look like it was filmed using the most expensive cameras in the world. This made “Public Enemies” a feast of cinematic techniques.

However, what people really go to movies for are stories (and that is at it should be, I believe). Here is where “Public Enemies” falls down on the job. The screenplay does not zoom in on any of the characters in much detail, so we never really understand why anyone is doing what he or she is doing. How does someone like Dillinger end up deciding to rob banks and kill police officers? That is such an extreme place to end up in life, but we aren’t clued into how that happens.

When Dillinger fixes his attention on a coat-check girl (played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in her first big American role), we have no idea why. We also don’t understand why his commitment to her is so extreme, nor why she takes up with him. How does a coat-check girl end up with a mass murderer? We’ll never know. There is an attempt at some explanation, but it is meager. She is bored with her life, and Dillinger can buy her things and make life exciting. But is that it? I cannot see that driving someone to join a criminal gang.

Questions of personal motivation do not interest the screenwriters. What interests them more is the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and particularly the drive to create an FBI culture among ordinary Americans. Billy Crudup is electrifying in only a few scenes as J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI. We see how driven Hoover is to penetrate the consciousness of the American public and mold it, creating a heroic identity for his officers — even giving them a nickname, G-Men, that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of early comic strips.

Like Hoover, Dillinger was concerned about his public image and loved being the anti-hero. It is interesting to see the FBI and bank robbers competing for control of the American imagination, but even this is not explored in much depth. Every time “Public Enemies” has an opportunity to dig into an element of the story, there is another bank robbery or shoot-out.

It is ironic that a director who appears to be so serious relies on ordinary popcorn-movie techniques to move his film along. On one level, “Public Enemies” is the most grown-up and serious film of the year, and on another it is one of the most shallow and adolescent. That is quite a remarkable combination.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.