Public Enemies

There is a reason that movies based on true events never get it right. Reality rarely organizes itself into a coherent narrative with a streamlined plot, compelling characters and a clear theme. So filmmakers tinker. They move events to different locations; they combine characters, compress timelines, and engage in a million other tricks that I’m probably not aware of, in order to get a story as opposed to an event.

There’s probably a better word for it than event but my vocabulary isn’t up to finding it, so let me try and explain. Stories are aimed. They are carefully crafted to make you draw the conclusions and experience the emotions that the storyteller wants. Events are random. They have no inherent moral lessons and rarely any kind of structure that we would recognize as a plot.  Say a person slips on a banana peel in front of two witnesses. Witness A may find this event hilarious. She’ll tell her friends later about flailing arms and lost dignity. Witness B, however, may see it as a near tragedy. The man could have broken his tailbone or even his back. He might have had a concussion. People should properly dispose of banana peels. They are a safety hazard.

Even a simple event can spawn very different stories. Witness A is not going to mention the five minutes that the victim spent laying on the sidewalk with a stunned look on his face, trying to determine if he’s unhurt. Witness B won’t relate the victim’s pretentious manner before his accident, how his nose was stuck in the air, which is why he didn’t see the banana peel in the first place. Such details would have muddled the stories. Thus the very act of storytelling distorts reality.

Michael Mann is a meticulous filmmaker. Every aspect of his work, every word in the script, every scrap of costume, every shadow in the picture frame is considered and judged. In the case of Public Enemies, Mann took this tremendous capacity for detail and tried to stay true to the event. He used all the original locations where he could. The jails Dillinger escaped from, the Little Bohemia Lodge where Melvin Purvis almost caught him are all where the actual events occurred. It’s amazing that so many of them still exist.  The script, likewise, tries to preserve the sequence and tenor of the events as much as possible.

And therein lies the problem. Public Enemies is a jumble of happenings that occur one after the other. They are not processed or commented on. I’d say it was documentary-like but documentaries usually have themes or slants. There were several threads of themes that I picked up on. Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp is an expert at manipulating the press as is J. Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup. They wage a PR battle for the hearts and minds of America. But there’s also stuff in there about the mafia, which is changing into a more corporate entity, and loose cannon bank robbers like Dillinger are deemed likely to bring the heat down on some very profitable operations by their flamboyant crimes and personalities. None of these threads ever coalesce into anything and I left the theater somewhat confused as to what it all meant.

In addition to the script problems, I had some technical quibbles. A lot of this was shot at night, using natural lighting, which gave rise to some depth of field problems. For non-photographers out there that mean that a lot the film was out of focus, which made it distracting. I also found the soundtrack to be muddy. There were times when I couldn’t hear the dialog clearly.

On the positive side is the cast. Do I really have to mention that Johnny Depp gives a fantastic performance as Dillinger? He manages to resolve the contradictions in Dillinger’s character. Here you have the consummate professional, a meticulous planner, who can rob a bank in less than two minutes. He doesn’t go out of his way to kill people, but won’t hesitate to do it if he needs to. He pays attention to his tools; he knows how guns work, why they jam and what to do about it, likewise a getaway car. He’s also a natural born leader. His men follow him not because he terrorizes them but because he’s loyal to them and fair. On the other hand, he’s a romantic. When he sees Billie Frenchette, played by Marion Cotillard, across a dance floor, he falls hard. But his way of sweeping her off her feet is to go up to her and simply ask for what he wants. He doesn’t sugarcoat it either, telling her exactly what it will be like traveling with a bank robber.

Cotillard captures Billie’s vulnerable innocence at first and then her growth into a willing and daring accomplice. It’s made all the more amazing when you consider that she’s not acting in her native tongue. Christian Bale is stoic and professional as Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup is suitably creepy as J. Edgar Hoover.

But these positive elements can’t overcome Public Enemies’ main flaw, that it’s just too diffuse to make a good story.

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