Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Michael Mann | Public Enemies

letting go
by Douglas Messerli

Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, and Ann Biderman (writers) (based on a book by Bryan Burrough), Michael Mann (director) Public Enemies / 2009

Michael Mann's Public Enemies begins with an intricately-planned and violent prison escape filmed with a hand-held digital camera presenting the up-close, wildly shifting movements of John Dillinger and several fellow prisoners (who later become his "gang") as they break from the dark confines of the prison into the bright sunlight, a pattern repeated throughout the work as Dillinger alternates between dark restaurants, bank lobbies, and hotel rooms to sunny streets and race tracks in his numerous swings between imprisonment and escape. While Dillinger (excellently acted by Johnny Depp) often argues for a life in the sun, symbolized by South America where he plans to escape after a daring train robbery, it is clear that he almost addicted to the dark.

     Even his beautiful girlfriend, Billie Frechette (played by French actor Marion Cotillard), is described as a "blackbird," since she is, she declares, part American Indian (a ridiculous proposition given Cotillard's appearance). Like the heists he hauls from bank vaults, Dillinger steals her love simply by declaring she's the girl for him; she has, evidently, little choice in the matter, and winds up in prison for a two year term for lying to the police about Dillinger's whereabouts.

      Indeed all those who surround Dillinger are doomed, in part because of the ridiculous obsession of the then young Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (somewhat tongue-in-cheekly played here by Billy Crudup). Through his stand-in, Chicago agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), Hoover is determined to put the Bureau on the map, resulting in greater respect and Congressional funding, which means, in his own terms, that it is "time to take the gloves off." It is almost as if Dillinger and his crime sprees were perfectly timed with the changes in the FBI to make it a national institution.

      Just as Dillinger, who brutally kills while seeming, in the public consciousness, as a kind of Robin Hood—in part for stealing what he calls "bank money" as opposed to the money of everyday investors—so the FBI (and by extension, Hoover) demands both blind obedience and love. One of Mann's major themes concerns the growing violence of the FBI, as men dedicated to scientific methods increasingly find themselves on the streets armed with machine-guns. Torture follows, as the agents round up anyone even vaguely connected to Dillinger, demanding information that the detainees often do not have. And one of the most painful scenes in the film is the brutal facial beating of Billie by an FBI interrogator who, when he discovers she has lied to him, is almost ready to kill her until Purvis arrives in time to stop him.

      Dillinger, it is clear, is a man on the "go," a man who wants "Everything. Right Now." But like so many American would-be adventurers, unfortunately he does not truly know what he wants and has nowhere to go. He can hardly imagine the life he promises in Buenos Aires or Caracas. Indeed, as Depp plays him, Dillinger is a man with few deep thoughts, and is forced by the very speed of his living to deliver any ideas up in one-line quips. In a conversation with Purvis in which Dillinger describes the horrible vision of a dying man, suggesting that the memory will keep Purvis awake nights, Purvis asks: "What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?" to which Dillinger replies "Coffee." In another instance, when Billie complains that she knows nothing about him, Dillinger answers: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?"

     Accordingly, while the movie is spell-bindingly watchable in its dark moments, from the interiors of the banks, hotel halls, and the inky shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Northern Wisconsin—where it is almost impossible to tell the difference between Dillinger's gang members and the FBI agents—to Dillinger's final moments in a movie theater, Mann's fable falls apart every time it attempts to establish any aspect of character or explore its simple ideas in any depth. In fact, one might almost argue that although Public Enemies is often lovely and exciting to watch (Depp plays Dillinger, at times, with a balletic beauty), there is little story, and even less substance, to ponder. In short, one might describe Public Enemies as a film without a script. And, in that sense, it might as well have been a silent film instead of one with three listed writers! Like Dillinger, Mann is so determined to get there fast that when, at the end, one of the agents visits Billie in her prison cell determined to tell her that Dillinger's last words were "Bye, Bye Blackbird," the myth (in fact, Dillinger, like the victims he describes in the film simply slipped away without saying anything) falls apart, and we find no meaning in the act, particularly because he has reported to Purvis that he couldn't hear what Dillinger said. Is that last sentimental gesture meant to show there is a heart beating in this empty kettle?

     At several times in Public Enemies John Dillinger is told that he has to learn how "to let go," to let go of his girlfriend, his actions, and, at some point, his very life. Mann has grabbed on to the Dillinger fable as if it were a bronking bull and rides it for its two hours and twenty-three minutes as if that achievement might create something of great signification; but in the end, all we have witnessed is a mighty blur of leg and hide. If only for an instant he had let go and fallen off we might have witnessed a bruised human being upon the screen.

Los Angeles, July 7, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2009).

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