PUBLIC ENEMIES (Michael Mann, 2009)

My taste does not normally run to what Michael Mann does, which he always does superficially. I suppose the film of his I have liked the most is the Hannibal Lecter one, Manhunter (1986)—that is, until today. Public Enemies is as superficial as everything else Mann has done; for instance, we do not learn much about Depression-era bank robber/killer John Dillinger; for instance, what motivated his criminal activity? But this time it hardly matters. This time, Mann has given his film such an incredibly rich surface that we do not miss the missing depth. At least I didn’t.
     Mann has orchestrated the conjuring of Chicago about a decade earlier than when he himself was born there. Elliot Goldenthal’s original score helps create a melancholy mood that suits Dillinger’s end, as do the three songs sung by Lady Day that punctuate the soundtrack. Moreover, working with high-definition video, Dante Spinotti has contributed dark, disquieting, gorgeous, deeply affecting visuals that likewise help Mann create a sad world of bruised dreams and desperate lives, for all the bravado that cover these. Mann has created an emotional imaginative space where fable and history intersect.
     The three main performances are outstanding. Johnny Depp is wonderful as Dillinger; much of the sympathy he draws from us derives from the abhorrent vicious treatment—the “advanced interrogation techniques”—to which J. Edgar Hoover’s thugs subject Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie, in their efforts to capture Dillinger. Marion Cotillard is superb in the heartrending role of this proud young woman who proves as fragile as a twig. Finally, Christian Bale is a taut fist as Melvin Purvis, the agent in charge of Dillinger’s capture, whose eventual suicide, it is implied, is provoked by the extent that Hoover’s “methods” countered Purvis’s principles, splintering his soul.

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