There is a lot to discuss concerning Public Enemies, a John Dillinger crime drama with Johnny Depp in the starring role, but the elephant in the theater is that the movie looks like crud.
You’re going to hear otherwise. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, for one, has been praising the Sony digital cameras that he and director Michael Mann used to shoot the period picture. And, indeed, Mann’s Collateral, a Tom Cruise hit man thriller shot with digital cameras, has a gorgeous, seedy look – it’s essentially an ode to the fluorescent glow of nocturnal Los Angeles.
But something went wrong on Public Enemies. The nighttime sequences are fuzzy; the daylight scenes are dim and gray. The more intimate images – including the many tight close ups – almost look as if they had been captured by a camera phone.
I’d like to say this was an aesthetic choice – an attempt to provide a realistic sense of the period. Yet even if it was, a slicker visual scheme would have been a better fit for one of the underlying themes at work. Public Enemies depicts Dillinger as an early version of the modern-day reality star, and what better way to get that across, visually, than to glam things up.
At least the movie has Depp on hand to provide some wattage. The delicate actor initially seems out of place in Mann’s macho world (this is the director behind such testosterone projects as Heat and Miami Vice). Yet Depp’s natural charisma wins over the tough guys around him and helps explain how a murderer could capture the affection of a Depression-era nation.
Public Enemies should only enhance the Dillinger-as-Robin-Hood legend. Depp charms his way through the bank robberies, even allowing the average Joe customers to keep their cash.
The film’s real, bloody violence, meanwhile, rarely comes at Dillinger’s hands. Instead, he’s mostly shown wooing coat check girls – Marion Cotillard plays an amalgamation of the girlfriends and prostitutes he hung out with – and manipulating the press.
“Who gives a $*#* what the public thinks?” someone asks Dillinger at one point. “I do,” he replies.
All of this infuriates the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who assigns Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head up the Dillinger squad. The movie wants to this to be a mano a mano showdown, but it’s a fixed fight. Depp is having too much fun, while Bale, yet again, plays something of a prig.
Like Ali, Mann’s mesmerizing biopic of the legendary boxer, Public Enemies is short on bookmarks; helpful dates, names and locations rarely appear on the screen.
Instead, we sense the history in snippets of conversation or atmospheric details. There is a great moment in which the squad learns that Dillinger is headed out for a night at the movies. But which theater? Well, a veteran cop points out, one is playing a Shirley Temple film, while the Biograph has the Clark Gable gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama…
Mann is a master craftsman in these moments, which makes it all the more frustrating that his movie is so visually dreary. Afterward, I thought about 2007’s somewhat similar The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It stayed true to its period while also being a gorgeous visual achievement. (Tellingly, it was shot on old-fashioned film.)
Public Enemies’ dreariness ultimately does a disservice to its cast and its story. Dillinger himself – if he was this much of a showman – would have demanded a better print.