by Brandon Colvin
There is a certain paradoxical quality that arises from describing a larger-than-life subject using the humblest of means. It is a quality that benefits from the incredible pressure to invent new methods, new approaches, in order to compensate for grandiosity with ingenuity. Not quite minimalism, it is a kind of narrative deprivation, a restraint that requires alternative routes in order to circumvent convention, a restraint pervading the visual textures and rhythms of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Mann’s film is jarring in its refusal to indulge in classicism, confounding the romanticized aesthetic that characterizes popular depictions of the 1930s from Chinatown (1974) to The Untouchables (1987) to Changeling (2008), an aesthetic that portrays the era with lush cinematography, nostalgically embellished art direction, and winking dollops of pop cultural zeitgeist. Instead, Public Enemies relies on the relatively unplumbed possibilities of the digital medium, finding unusual beauty in the harshness of the unsentimental, unidealized image and portraying the ultimate pop icon of the period, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), in the pixilated light of jittery cameras and unimposing historical detail.
This is no surprise to those familiar with Mann’s career as the preeminent avant-action filmmaker of the last few decades. Reflecting an almost amateurish zeal for immediacy and a mature preference for understatement, Mann’s films have consistently been hailed as both intense and intelligent, and, in his last few efforts, the writer/director has effectively explored a refreshing penchant for digital daring, particularly in Collateral (2004) and the underrated Miami Vice (2006), finding new angles and new rhythms for crafting genre works of the highest caliber. Public Enemies is the culmination of Mann’s envelope-pushing approach, combining his storytelling strengths with the aesthetic asceticism of blunt digitization, finding a quicker, faster, sharper way to communicate every aspect of one of the most fantasized and mythologized American lives.
From photography to pacing to performances, Public Enemies controversially suggests that legendary elaboration be damned. The film speaks directly, so directly that it might almost seem superficial in its refusal to dwell on psychological, philosophical, or moral implications; but it’s all there, hiding in the cracks and creases – in Depp’s sly smirks and blank stares, in Christian Bale’s self-conscious desperation as federal investigator Melvin Purvis, in the naïve obsession haunting the eyes of Billie Freschette (Marion Cotillard), Dillinger’s lover. Bank heists, gun battles, chase sequences – all are shot with utmost practicality, prioritizing efficiency and simplicity in framing and staging and producing a seamless stream of compositions that accumulate cohesively and clearly, a no-nonsense perspective that compliments Dillinger’s consummate professionalism. Establishing shots are rare and not lingered-over (Mann’s aforementioned immediacy), appropriately reducing the incredibly convincing sets and costumes to functional background information. There is no “oooh, ahhh,” only “what’s next?” Public Enemies is propulsive and pragmatic. Nothing too pretty. Nothing too orchestrated. Everything is on the fly, seemingly improvised, absolutely to the point – just as Dillinger would have preferred.
Public Enemies, however, is not without its missteps, the most frustrating of which is the romantic relationship between Dillinger and Billie, one of the few aspects of the film in which rigorous unconventionality subsides. The love story is central to the Dillinger narrative, almost distractingly so. While it contributes to Dillinger’s psychological depth, it adds unwanted sappiness in certain scenes, particularly the teary finale, and is a stumbling block in an otherwise surefooted story, bogging down the narrative in overlong courtship scenes. All things considered, the slight fumbling of the romance is a minor quibble, one that could be resolved with a bit of snipping and cutting, and perhaps a shift in emphasis during Public Enemies’ conclusion away from love and toward Dillinger’s legacy and impact. With a film so thoroughly fresh, it’s hard to complain, but stale is stale, even if the love story’s overall benefits outweigh its nagging detriments.
With Public Enemies, Michael Mann has produced a truly original piece of cinema. As an experiment in creating new relationships between form and content, it succeeds in demonstrating how an unexpected contrast in style and subject can unveil equally unexpected aesthetic possibilities. Mann has expanded the scope and size of stories that can be told using digital technology, looking forward to the mainstream acceptance of an alternative to filmic images. Using digital not as an imitation of film, but as a medium to be explored for its own unique narrative capabilities and visual qualities, Public Enemies is movie I have no trouble defining as downright progressive.