Public Enemies (2009)

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*. The title, and most of the historical background, come from a non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough. It’s a great read and I really recommend it. The story was changed quite a bit for the screen though.
*. Most of the changes were made to build up the central adversarial relationship between John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), which helps give the movie a character-driven spine that Burrough’s book certainly lacked. The liberties taken are, however, enormous. The scene where Purvis meets Dillinger and speaks to him in jail is wholly invented, and the Little Bohemia clusterfuck is made into a partial success as we see Purvis heroically avenging the death of Carter by gunning down Baby Face Nelson (in fact Nelson escaped). We are also introduced to Purvis in a scene that has him killing Pretty Boy Floyd, which he did not. But since he is the heroic G-man everything has to be done to build him up and focus on his efforts to bring Dillinger to justice.
*. In fact, Purvis seems to have been borderline incompetent, something Hoover soon became aware of, leading him to make Cowley the agent in charge of the Dillinger file. You wouldn’t guess any of that from this movie.
*. Does this matter? Burrough didn’t think so, saying that “if it [the film] was 100% accurate, you would call it a documentary.” This isn’t true, but I don’t particularly mind. Unfortunately, the main reason I don’t mind is because I was so bored that matters of historical accuracy never had a chance to get under my skin.
*. What a dull movie. The first time through I actually stopped watching it and only went back to see the rest of it a week later. Yes, I was that bored. I really didn’t care how it ended. I mean, I knew how it ended — at the Biograph Theater — but I didn’t care.
*. It’s dull because it’s uninteresting and dull because of how it’s paced. I winced when I saw the running time of 140 minutes.
*. How is it possible for a gangster film based on the life of John Dillinger to be this boring? Such a result seems to fly in the face of a fundamental law of entertainment. I mean, we have lots of gunfights and prison breaks and other exciting stuff going on here. Why does this movie feel as though it’s stuck in mud?

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*. There’s lots of blame to go around. I’ll start with the source. Burrough’s book, while well researched and providing a thorough and remarkably detailed accounting of “America’s first crime wave,” takes almost no interest in the personalities of the various actors involved. It’s just not that kind of book, and, to be honest, people like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Melvin Purvis might not have been that interesting, psychologically, to begin with. So it’s no big surprise that they have no depth here. When Dillinger, for example, sees Clark Gable walking to the electric chair and offering up the advice to “die the way you live” he recognizes something of his own credo, but it’s not much of a philosophy.
*. Unfortunately, despite all of the pruning done, Mann’s film doesn’t take us any further than this. Compare what was done with Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s telling of that story. Did Penn take liberties? Certainly. But so does Mann. Only Mann still doesn’t come up with any interesting characters.
*. Roger Ebert really liked the movie, and this is what he has to say about the way Dillinger’s character is presented: “Here is a film that shrugs off the way we depend on myth to sentimentalize our outlaws. There is no interest here about John Dillinger’s childhood, his psychology, his sexuality, his famous charm, his Robin Hood legend. . . .  Here is an efficient, disciplined, bold, violent man, driven by compulsions the film wisely declines to explain.” Why “wisely”? Why is it a good thing that the movie has “no interest” in anything relating to Dillinger’s psychology or sexuality? Shouldn’t we get something along these lines? After all, it’s a romance.
*. I think this lack of interest in psychology helps explain why it’s so hard to tell who’s who, even on repeated viewings. Part of this confusion is probably also attributable to how dark everything is, and the drab colour scheme, but I think it’s mainly due to the fact that there are no real personalities being developed.
*. Then there are the lead performances. Christian Bale is a post. It seems every role he’s in he’s trying to appear more repressed. I think everyone knows that, and I assume that’s why he was cast as the uptight Purvis, who seems even stiffer than Kevin Costner’s humourless Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. But why did Depp want to challenge him in this regard? Dillinger was by most accounts a charismatic joker but none of that comes through here. Depp shows even less expression than Lawrence Tierney displayed in the same part (in Dillinger), which is incredible. Maybe it would have worked better if he’d tried to play Heath Ledger’s Joker to Bale’s Batman. That might have been interesting. But we’ll never know.
*. Johnny Depp is a good-looking guy but he seems to be trying too hard to look good here. Indeed, the whole movie seems to be trying too hard to look good. It all looks very stylish, again in a way reminiscent of The Untouchables. The period details are great (they even shot in actual locations like the Little Bohemia Lodge and the Crown Point jail) but I don’t think Depression-era Chicago ever looked this nice. But they had a big budget ($100 million) and when you spend that kind of money you expect to see it all on screen.
*. To take a perhaps not-so-obvious example of the pretty visuals being in the driver’s seat: why doesn’t Pretty Boy Floyd duck behind one of those apple trees instead of running right down the middle between two rows of them so that he’s totally exposed out in the open? Come on. The short answer is because it makes for a prettier shot (I mean camera shot; it was an easier shot for Purvis).
*. In reality, Floyd wasn’t killed in an orchard but in an open field, and after Dillinger.
*. The final drag on the film is Mann’s ponderous handling of the narrative. Many shots are held far too long, especially of faces in close-up that communicate nothing. There were also a number of scenes that I thought could have been cut in their entirety without losing anything. This movie could and should have been at least 30 minutes shorter.
*. The relationship between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is sappy and cloying. They spend a lot of time looking all dreamy into each other’s eyes, perhaps because they have nothing much to say to each other. Their romance, much like the Dillinger-Purvis conflict, is built up so that it’s more significant than it actually was. By the time he was killed Dillinger had moved on from Billie and was dating one of Anna Sage’s girls. You can see again how history gets streamlined for dramatic purposes.
*. From the entertaining, pared-down gangster films that Warners put out on the cheap in the 1930s to this. I don’t call that progress. Public Enemies drags. The running time was completely unnecessary given there are no character arcs but just the usual clichéd figures (the romantic outlaw, the upright lawman, the understanding moll). I came away from this movie not having learned a thing about Dillinger, either concerning the facts of his life or by way of an interpretation of his character. The actors are just modeling lots of nice clothes.

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