Well-made movies are able to bring history to life vividly while not pandering to audiences with anachronistic dialogue and music. Public Enemies is well made, there’s no doubt about it, but director Michael Mann takes the term “The Depression” way too literally.
Unlike Changeling, where Clint Eastwood richly recreated Los Angeles in the late ’20s/early ’30s, Public Enemies is dour, stodgy and dismal, with few, if any, moments of levity or enjoyment — even with a stellar cast headed by Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard, and featuring cameos by Channing Tatum, Lili Taylor and other mostly wasted talents. The era of ’30s Chicago and the downtrodden Midwest is evoked perfectly, but Mann betrays his “failure to ignite” by staging scenes like the one where Depp blithely announces, “I’m John Dillinger. I rob banks” over cocktails with Cotillard (as Dillinger’s insta-moll Billie Frechette). It’s the kind of scene they’ll show in the trailers to get audiences in seats, but the bank robberies themselves are violent and mean affairs devoid of any joy of filmmaking we expect.
The story just seems to start at some point in Dillinger’s career and trudge along until his end. While no one should expect a glamorized shoot-'em-up, it isn’t too much to expect a little more depth of character or exciting screenwriting. With actors of the caliber of Bale and Depp, you will be charmed and fascinated by the complexities they try to instill in their fairly two-dimensional characters, but oh, the missed opportunities. This could have been an Oscar-worthy treasure trove of sharp dialogue, political intrigue and compelling characters, but Mann acts almost like a high school history teacher who is determined that his students will not enjoy his class.
Public Enemies will never jumpstart a gangster movie renaissance — being such a musty history lesson is not going to endear the film to the average audience. The best scenes feature Crudup as lingerie aficionado and FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, both as he battles Congress to be taken seriously, and as he uses his “War on Crime” as shamelessly as Bush and Cheney exploited their “War on Terror” for political gain. With Depp, Cotillard, Bale and the rest of the cast giving powerful performances, I would never call Public Enemies a bad movie, but it sure puts the “depress” in the Great Depression.
UPDATE: Public Enemies is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.