Summer Film Series – Vol. 7, No. 3: PUBLIC ENEMIES
July 5, 2009, at Movies 14 in McKinney, Texas
At this point I’m a full-fledged fan of both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, so the idea of both starring in one film — and a gangster film set in my beloved Chicago, no less — really just sealed the deal for me with regard to Public Enemies. The two actors could have done nothing more than sit across from each other and talk throughout the entire two-hour running time and I would have considered the film a complete success. Depp has been consistently entertaining me for twenty years now, and Bale has become fully reliable in his characterizations. That the story of Public Enemies is based on the pursuit of John Dillinger by Melvin Purvis, newly appointed agent-in-charge of Chicago’s Bureau of Investigation field office, is just icing on an already perfect cake. Thankfully, nothing in the film disappointed me.
That is not to say that Public Enemies is a perfect film; so much more could have been done by way of story and character. But what story there is has been told with great elegance and beauty. The look of the film is exquisite, evoking all of my own imaginings of the Depression-era Midwest, and every detail has been finely tuned to ensure that the audience is never jolted from this period. Set design, costuming, art direction are astounding, and all of the expected details are present, including the infamous Tommy guns and multiple getaways on the running boards of a Ford Coupe. I’ve seen these iconic images all of my life, so I would have been greatly disappointed to not see them in this film. Additionally, the film is given a soft focus by centering Dillinger’s story around the love of his life, Billie Frechette, played by the enchanting Marion Cotillard. While this gives the film its heart, it also serves to detract from the legend of John Dillinger and the criminal history that made him an icon. I would have enjoyed more outlaw elements and fewer romantic scenes but Depp played both sides effortlessly, bringing to life a Dillinger that I’d never considered before. Which is, of course, the specialty that makes Johnny Depp a legend even now.
Public Enemies could have been a better film, but I appreciate that director Michael Mann has given us something we didn’t expect from him nor from the subject. And I have to respect this and praise everyone involved for choosing the less obvious route and creating true art in the process. This film is the kind of movie that will draw me back to it again and again throughout my life. And that is the highest praise I can give.