Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Sound of Gunfire: Michael Mann's Public Enemies

Michael Mann is fascinated with the mythic nature of society and the power struggles between men. His Public Enemies bristles with the excitement of these myths, which he celebrates through style, texture and explosions, and yet the film does little to reveal meaning behind our myths. Mann is a brilliant craftsman and stylist. Students of film will appreciate his dizzying camera and terse editing. There is life to almost every frame, especially when the cops and robbers are shooting it out, using big, loud, guns, but there is also a gaping hole at the center of the movie where there could have been so much more.

John Dillinger was a man of the people, a national folk hero during the Great Depression, known as much for his gregarious personality and charisma as his criminal efficiency. Unfortunately the three writers credited with the project (including Mann) couldn't figure out a way to work this out. Johnny Depp's Dillinger is cool, remote and sociopathic. We see nothing of the community support he worked so hard to earn. We never get a sense of the exhiliration behind his bank heists and as a result he is mainly joyless to watch.

This Dillinger takes pleasure in nothing except for his 'moll' Billie (Marion Cotillard), who is either drawn to his charisma or threatened by his ruthlessness. Either way, she's along for the ride. Their romance is the only beacon of humanity in the film but it has no weight or credibility. Most of the time Dillinger just floats through scenes like a badass automaton.

Fighting for the other side is Agent Purvis (Christian Bale), a stoic and meticulous lawman who leads the manhunt for Dillinger. Their cat and mouse interplay never really catches fire. Mann is too preoccupied with the manly bravado and macho posturing of his leads, to dig beneath the surface as he did so brilliantly in Heat. There isn't a single scene that shows us Purvis in his private life outside of the job, and if there had been his epigraph might have had impact.

What ultimately makes the film work is the crackling soundtrack and the ending. There's something profoundly unsettling about the way the manhunt for Dillinger comes to a close. Public Enemies may be the first gangster film in which the villain is gunned down and somehow the police come off as the guilty ones. If only the writers had worked a little harder to bring us to this point. Like so many recent and inscrutable movie protagonists (think Benjamin Button or Harvey Milk), this Dillinger drifts through history without actually impacting it.  As a consequence, you may leave Public Enemies remembering the sound of the gunfire more than anything else, but what dazzling gunfire it is.

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