cinematographique

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Public Enemies ***½

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Public EnemiesPublic Enemies considers the crimes and downfall of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the legendary Depression-era bank-robber. His blitzkrieg on the front-offices of America’s retail financial institutions made him J. Edgar Hoover’s “public enemy number one“. The fledgling FBI, then ‘Detectives Agency’, is represented by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), Hoover’s chief tool, huntsman and implementor of rough tactics. Johnny robs banks, busts out of jail, and plays the PR game. Very thankfully, Michael Mann avoids retelling the media’s tale which long fueled misconceptions about the great crooks of the 1930s and their battle with audacious G-men. While there are brief hints at the celebrity Johnny enjoys, his is a life of anxiety, out of the limelight, living in flight. His charm works on Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) but we are shown full well how shallow a veneer it might be. His lines are elegant yet blunt, without a trace of wit. However his escapades endear him to the wider public, we see only his and his comrades’ brutality, violence, and amoral robbery. And a syndicate mobster chuckles at his Robin Hood affectations: reminding the audience that these figures were not sticking it to banks who seemed to have plunged the country into Depression; but robbing dirt poor farmers and working families of their deposits and working capital. We are also under no illusions that Dillinger is a superman: he simply outguns his pursuers, using human shields and hulking V8’s to escape. This is why even the scientific methods of the Agency, who hunt Dillinger to secure the profile necessary to elevate them into a Federal Bureau, come to little avail. All that can fight these thugs is the gunslinging prowess of the Texas Rangers, brought in to corner and blast Johnny.

Public Enemies2As a realistic treatment of its subject, Public Enemies is pretty successful. In terms of historicity, it has an aura of authenticity, despite a discernible desire for glamour. And it’s also solid film-making, with a stylistic power all its own. But it is oddly dissatisfying. Public Enemies seems to fall between two stools. Is it simply a biopic, or something more substantial? At times it recalls the greatest gangster films, and the most transcendent of westerns, but always falls short. Its content is much more than a list of events, but it isn’t an event itself: it’s uneventful. It’s confused by the rupture of historical moments, not sure whether they are instamatic abstractions which vanish before we notice, or singular events to linger over, foreshadowed and meaningful. It cannot find an ethical position, maintaining clinical distance from moral judgements, while placing us as close as possible to each act, motion, expression, figure. It finds it hard to make any formal decisions, a consistent palette, any compelling semiotics or aesthetics. The most important of films tend to show, rather than tell. Not much is said in it, nor does it have much to say for itself. It may contain the germ of a masterpiece, and moments of brilliance flicker behind the otherwise giddy, drunken eye of the camera. But it does not follow through – what could have become substance remains style. It’s full of interesting camera work, and contrary to certain opinion, first rate performances. (Although, and I hesitate to criticize the riveting Stephen Graham, Baby Face Nelson’s accent briefly transforms to pure Scally). Technically, it seems quite inconsistent, and in some respects, almost unfinished. The sound is at times poorly balanced, and any powerful or suggestive images are underdeveloped. Worst of all, its story is at heart devoid of change. A narrative about Dillinger requires certain threads to be teased out of his life, certain ideas to develop, judgements to be made. Mann’s tale fails to arouse emotion, despite its affective potency. And that just isn’t enough to invest ourselves for 140 minutes. In the end, it boils down to mediocre storytelling.

 

Public Enemies, Dir. Michael Mann, Writ. Mann, Bennett & Biderman, Universal, USA, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

02/07/2009 at 20:25

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