Michael Mann’s enthralling period-piece gangster film Public Enemies simultaneously charts the exploits of famed bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who’s leading the team rigorously pursuing him. It might initially seem like a roadmap of familiar material from a virtuoso filmmaker known for his crime films, as battle weary professionals on both sides of the law attempt to outmaneuver each other, inevitably clashing in grandiose shootouts while the everyday man and woman gets caught in the middle. But these auteurist traits become so much more when they merge together forming a stark and haunting vision of sadness and guilt amidst a country slowly drowning in economic depression. Public Enemies relishes, even romanticizes its classical sweeping look at crime and punishment, creating a feeling more akin to Mann’s brilliant Last of the Mochicans than Heat or Collateral.
In the kinetic opening sequence, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) orchestrates a daring prison break from an Indiana maximum security prison. Mann frames Dillinger against the cloudy blue skies as he effortlessly wields a tommy gun against a litany of guards, as Dante Spinetti’s stunning digital photography immediately introduces a seamless yet menacing visual approach. Later, as Dillinger and his cohorts swoop through a bank, the violence becomes close-knit, vital, and incredibly rushed. Each represents a different mode of storytelling, but both show how Mann turns genre iconography into poetry. Public Enemies displays this specific motif throughout to chart a vast collection of characters and scenarios, including Dillinger’s run of successful robberies, Purvis’ work-in-progress man hunt, Dillinger’s falling out with Chicago organized crime because of his media attention, and his short but potent relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Coutard).
Mann connects this breadth of material with a brilliant sense of pacing, pushing temporal notions to the background in favor of meticulous spatial construction, specifically focusing on color and movement as they clash during moments of action. Almost every scene pops with intensity as Mann builds up to the inevitability of Dillinger’s fate. Action and reaction slowly constrict every character until they’re ready to burst, a brilliant Mann device found in everything from Manhunter to Miami Vice. These might not be dimensional characters in the classic sense, but each performance evokes a complex display of emotion, best exemplified by Coutard’s tragic turn. For the first time since Heat, Mann finds his most successful epic form, juggling history and drama through countless characters and relationships, focusing on the minute details and moments inherent to every cinematic downfall but made fresh again by the director’s impeccable visual sense. Most of all, Public Enemies offers a stirring sense of dramatic scope, as Mann’s formalist expertise enables the film to transcend genre and highlight a specific vision of America, a riveting maze of desperation, glamour, weakness, love, violence, and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”