Thursday, September 3, 2009
Public Enemies **
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum
Giovanni Ribisi, Lily Taylor, Branka Katic
David Wenham, Leelee Sobieski
"Public Enemies" gives away its biggest flaw just when it thinks it's making a point.
In one of the film's last scenes, bank robber, John Dillinger (Depp) sits in a movie theater watching "Manhattan Melodrama".
The Clark Gable gangster film, after which he met his demise at hands of the FBI. During the movie Dillinger's eyes shine with mockery and recognition.
He sees himself as the Gable character, a gangster coming to terms with his actions. If director Michael Mann was trying to point out the dicotomy of similarities and differences between movie and real life gangsters his intentions get lost in the process.
Because even if his movie is shot and styled like a docudrama, it still plays out like a Hollywood movie.
Filmed in high definition video by the brilliant Dante Spinotti, "Public Enemies" follows Dillinger's-short, but infamous- career as a bank robber during which he became America's number one public enemy.
The film also follows the rise of the FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover (played spectacularly by Crudup who gives the film's best performance) and agent Melvin Purvis' (Bale) interstate hunt for Dillinger.
The plot (or lack of it) extends languidly for almost two and a half hours during which nothing much happens. Dillinger goes to jail, escapes jail, robs a bank, is involved in a shootout. Purvis looks for him, thinks he's got him, he escapes...
Somewhere in the middle of this Dillinger is smitten by coat check girl Billie Frechette (Cotillard) and they become each other's anchors of sort.
But with this, as with almost everything else, "Public Enemies" fails in providing a sense of realism.
Ironic, thinking how the natural cinematography should by default give the movie a sense of honesty. Mann's biggest mistake was trusting movie precepts.
While Spinotti's work is commendable, most of the time the movie looks, and sounds, like a taped rehearsal. Hollywood hasn't gotten us used to watching gangsters look like real people, they have always possessed an aura of glamor (something highlighted in the "Manhattan Melodrama" scene) that makes them almost mythical creatures.
Now, if Mann's intention was precisely to bring the myth down to earth-which in itself would've been an admirable feat-why then does he insist on having them move, act and talk like movie characters?
Graham as Baby Face Nelson comes off looking like something James Cagney would've played while imitating Richard Widmark. It has been said that 1930's gangster copied their style from the way movies depicted them (a postmodernist stroke of genius by them) in order to justify their public behavior.
But Mann's gangsters act the same way in the comfort of their hideout places. Dillinger is given lines that make you cringe and while Depp gives the character a touch of vulnerability in the end once again it's Johnny Depp being Johnny Depp; an amalgam of mannierisms, quirk and "acting" trying to be passed off as non-acting.
Bale gives Purvis some affecting qualities and realism (augmentated by how magnified his pores look with the cinematography) but again he plays his character like a somber figure who speaks only when needed. Inside Purvis was Dillinger, inside Bale there's Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown".
It is Marion Cotillard who gives the most enigmatic performance in the movie, we do not for a single moment belive her love for Dillinger to be the stuff of "movies", but there is something buried inside her that make her behavior fascinating.
She is swept off her feet by the gangster like Jean Harlow-he needs only to use the perfect line-but in latter scenes when we see her loyalty towards him we wonder what is behind all this.
It's possible to say not even the actress is sure of what Frechette's psychology is (none of the characters in this movie provide the slightest glimpse of backstory).
But it is Billie who haunts us after we leave the theater. Perhaps because she represents everything the film could've been, but wasn't.
This is best summarized in the "Manhattan Melodrama" scene where Dillinger looks upon the screem at Myrna Loy.
Loy appears in several scenes looking stunning and magical, her eyes shining like cinematic diamonds and when we see Dillinger's face we're supposed to know he's remembering Billie.
And how wouldn't he, turns out even Dillinger knows best for the movie; he knows that Cotillard's eyelashes weren't made for shaky docudrama, they were made for celluloid.