Public Enemies gets all of its surfaces right. The camera lingers on meticulous suits, expensive watches and the gleaming curves of old cars. It showcases the solid menace of vintage machine guns, fetishes the flash of gunfire and holds steady over a variety of broken, bloodied forms. It even sweeps above a transformed version of Lincoln Avenue, filling it with 1930s forms, storefronts and lamp-cast light. (Having rode by daily as they created the illusion, I was amazed to see it on screen.)
But the movie fails to penetrate any of these exteriors. The cops and robbers are placed on rails, given the occasional catchy saying and left to chug through the movie without any sense of motivation or larger meaning.
Dillinger, quietly captured by Johnny Depp, offers once that his dad beat him too much, but that’s the only stab offered at explanation. His loyalty to his fellow crooks is lauded, but the origin of these bonds are unshown. Crowds form to watch—and even applaud—as he is transferred to prison, but we’re unsure why he captured their imagination.
Sure, director Michael Mann moves the plot through its paces: prison escapes, bank jobs, gunfights and the occasional romantic interlude. The sets are gorgeous, but the action is often confusing, with G-men and gangsters muddled as they shoot guns and drive fast cars.
This confusion extends to the film’s point-of-view as well. Public Enemies studiously declines to define its subjects. It leaves Dillinger a blank slate while wanting us to embrace him as an antihero. It glosses over the impact of his murders and hostage-taking, passing it off camera or excusing it with hollow gestures, such as Dillinger belting out “Last Roundup” or offering his coat to a chilled bank teller who’s just been used as a human shield. The police offer some ham-handed torture of prisoners and molls—perhaps true—in an effort to balance the scales, but the movie shies away from the fact that Dillinger and his crew were dangerous men, and the misfortune of being in their presence could kill you.
Frustratingly, the film moves past more compelling stories in its focus on the man. Why did Dillinger’s actions resonate with the Depression-era public? Why did his peers hold such contempt for law and its representatives? Did the bank robbers of that time provide the seed for the over-militarization of the police that continues today? How did crime shift from raconteur gangsters to bookies and number crunchers?
These omissions highlight director Mann’s diligent neglect of the political context of the times. They limit the film’s ambition, leaving it, in the judgment of Roger Ebert and David Denby, as something less-than-great.
I was less impressed than they were. The movie is snappy and well-made. The actors are well-cast and comfortable. The romance is desperate and compelling (while remaining as shallow as its principals.) But the drive beneath is weak, presenting more a series of occurrences than a compelling story, leaving the viewer to wonder, at the end, what the point of it all was.