REVIEW: Public Enemies

9 08 2009

Everything was in place for “Public Enemies” to become a sensational achievement in film.  It had great actors such as Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose”), and Johnny Depp.  It had a highly respected director, Michael Mann, who directed such memorable flicks as “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” and “The Insider.”  It had unbelievable source material from Bryan Burrough’s fascinating volume of the 1933-34 War on Crime “Public Enemies.”  However, even with all these things in place, the movie manages to underwhelm.  My main quarrel with it was the script, which is less historically accurate than “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”  It takes everything that made Burroughs’ book so engrossing and discards it completely.  Even captivating performances by Depp and Cotillard cannot save the muddled mess of a movie.

John Dillinger (Depp) is the FBI’s Public Enemy #1.  He was a bank robber, but he was also a celebrity.  In the most difficult of times in America, Dillinger became a legend for stealing from the bankers who caused the crisis.  He became popular for only stealing from the vaults, saying that he didn’t want to steal money from the hard-working American people.  While avoiding his captors and holding up numerous banks, Dillinger falls in love with Billie Frechette (Cotillard).  She knows the risk of being with Dillinger, but she is attracted to something about him and becomes part of the gang anyways.  The movie also shows the story of Melvin Purvis (Bale), the man that FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, “Watchmen”) has chosen to hunt Dillinger down.  But in the 1930’s, the FBI didn’t have the power that it has today.  Purvis and his inexperienced agents are bumbling idiots, messing up even the most simple of tasks.

Depp brings his usual mysterious allure to the role, but I’m not so sure this was the right approach to bring to Dillinger.  He makes the complex criminal somewhat inaccessible, which is the opposite impression that I got after reading about him for 550 pages.  To me, Dillinger was a man just like anyone else who cared about his reputation and public perception.  In actuality, he was furious with himself after mortally wounding a sheriff because he thought the public would begin to view him as a murderer just like the other bandits terrorizing much of the country.  But Depp is nonetheless captivating to watch.  Cotillard gives a stellar and emotionally powerful performance as well, but the movie fails to explain why she found Dillinger so enthralling.  Bale is decent, but the role is so monotone and void of emotion that any B-list actor could have played Purvis.

As I said before, the script is just awful, which shockingly is co-written by Mann himself.  It attempts to create a more enthralling story than the true story, but it produces a confusing and unfocused story.  It could care less about any characters other than Dillinger, Frechette, and Purvis; it mixes roles, kills people off too early, and gives them no depth whatsoever.  The approach to Dillinger is notably unfocused, unable to decide how to portray him.  Completely lost is Burrough’s underlying message in his book about how the War on Crime gave birth to a federal police force with the power that it has today.  Instead, the FBI is merely a subplot that they felt obliged to include.

This review is harshly censorious, only because it had such great potential.  Overall, the movie is fun to watch, and I would like to see it again when I am not overanalyzing it for historical accuracy.  Mann directs the movie with grace and poise; the sets and costumes are illustrious and magnificent.  It runs a hefty 143 minutes, and it is always entertaining.  But if you want to see a more realistic and fascinating John Dillinger, pick up Burrough’s book “Public Enemies,” which tells not only his story but the rise and fall of five other Depression era crime gangs.  You won’t be disappointed in that.  B / 3stars



One response

16 08 2009

I too was underwhelmed by the movie… I looked forward to it all year and was disappointed.

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