As such, it’s prudent to reexamine another gem from the director that hit a milestone this year: “Public Enemies,” Mann’s film about the efforts of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to capture bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), turned 10 this year. And though not quite ignored at the box office (it was the 33rd-highest-grossing film of 2009) or roundly dismissed by critics (the film sports a soft 68 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), “Public Enemies” deserves more acclaim and recognition for acutely capturing life in a time of turmoil and change.
At first glance, “Public Enemies” seems like a “Heat” clone. Like “Heat,” which starred Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as a cop and robber at the top of their respective games, “Public Enemies” set two critical favorites and box-office draws against each other on opposite sides of the law. As the film opens, we are treated to one of Mann’s classic set pieces, a prison breakout staged by Dillinger. We then transition to Purvis’s killing of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, the first of several small appearances by top-tier talent), a chronologically inaccurate but thematically satisfying suggestion that we have two alpha men about to go to work against each other.
Dillinger is a man out of time: not quite Robin Hood or Bonnie and Clyde, but still a larger-than-life outlaw whose sense for public relations gives him a leg up on the other criminals. “Who gives a damn what the public likes?” one outlaw asks. “I do. I hide out among them,” Dillinger replies. But times are changing; Dillinger’s heists are penny ante stuff compared to the mob’s racketeering operations.
“On October 23rd, you robbed a bank in Greencastle, Indiana. You got away with $74,802. You thought that was a big score? These phones make that every day,” one mobster says in a back-room sports book where accountants are jotting down bet after bet when Dillinger inquires politely as to why the mob is refusing to protect him against the feds. “And it keeps getting made, day after day after day, a river of money.”
Dillinger’s time — that of the gentlemen gangster waging a one-man war against the law — is coming to a close. The age of bureaucratic bookies has arrived. And those bookies don’t care for Dillinger’s antics.
Purvis, meanwhile, is a man of the bureaucracy: he hopes to fit in with J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his nationalized police force. “I’m afraid our type cannot get the job done,” Purvis says, three times rejecting Hoover’s notions of a sanitized organization with interchangeable cogs chasing down bad men.
Which is why “Public Enemies” is best understood not as Depp vs. Bale but Depp vs. Lang. As in Stephen Lang, who plays Charles Winstead, a cowboy type whose rough methods and unrefined persona are disdained by Hoover. When Winstead appears on the scene, Purvis begins to shrink; by film’s end, it’s Winstead who tells Purvis where he will wait for Dillinger, Winstead who pulls the trigger on Dillinger, Winstead who delivers the final lines to Dillinger’s heartbroken girlfriend, Billie (Marion Cotillard). Lang’s steely-eyed portrayal as Winstead — an honorable man who chafes at the sanitized constraints imposed upon him by paper pushers — remains the film’s enduring performance, and once one understands that he is the true protagonist, the whole movie snaps into shape.
There are other pleasures, of course, notably Mann’s use of digital photography. “Public Enemies” looks amazing on Blu-ray on a TV that displays deep blacks, the cameras that Mann used vividly capturing low-light shootouts in the woods. “Digital cameras read into the shadows very differently,” cinematographer Dante Spinotti told American Cinematographer in 2009. “There’s an incredible elasticity there that you don’t have with film — you can adjust gamma curves and gain and really gain incredible control over the image.” While some have complained that the digital aesthetic is poorly suited for the period setting, I couldn’t disagree more: There’s a sort of hazy, dreamlike drift to certain shots that suggests a look back through the gauzy curtain of time.
If you haven’t been interested in “Public Enemies” before, I implore you to give it a shot. It’s the perfect movie for people in a time of flux.