July 4, 2009 -- After seeing “Public Enemies” one is tempted to say “Is that all there is to John Dillinger?” There is more, there has to be, but the film is unwilling to look at the ugly stuff on the bottom side of the rock that is Dillinger's personality. That is not to say this is not a well-crafted movie with excellent performances. It is. It is also curiously one-sided and shallow like many movies about famous outlaws tend to be.
We see the pain suffered by Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard of “La Vie En Rose”) at the hands of brutish FBI Agent Harold Reinecke (Adam Mucci), but we don't see the havoc created by Dillinger and his gang as they shoot up banks all over the country. Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is portrayed as a kind of hero. He was, in fact, perceived as a hero by the public because he robbed banks. There was a low opinion of banks and bankers during the Great Depression year of 1933 when this film takes place. Just as it was then, banks are once again in low esteem and there is again a surge in bank robberies during this, the greatest economic decline since the depression.
Dillinger's main pursuer is FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale of “The Dark Knight”) who admits to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup of “Almost Famous”) that his young agents and scientific law enforcement techniques are no match for the tough Dillinger mob. He requests the transfer of some tough, old-school agents from the Dallas office, the hard-eyed Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), Gerry Campbell (Matt Craven) and Clarence Hurt (Don Frye). Hoover tells Purvis to take off the gloves and get tough with suspects. This also includes certain enhanced interrogation techniques, a topic generating familiar echoes in the 21st Century. This is not the first time that law enforcement agents have been portrayed as bullies and it won't be the last. To balance things out a bit, not all the crooks are portrayed as heroes. Some, like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) are shown to be wild-eyed killers with no regard for human life.
The film features scenes of very bloody violence, several bank robberies and two prison and jail breakouts engineered by Dillinger, including the famous jail break when he made a fake gun out of a bar of soap. Another famous incident shown in the film was the shootout between Dillinger's gang and the FBI at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. I used to live not far from that legendary place. This battle was filmed at the same lodge where the original shootout took place in 1934. Another famous historical building, the Biograph Theater in Chicago also serves as the backdrop for a famous incident depicted in the film. It would be the place where Dillinger would see his last film, “Manhattan Melodrama” starring starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. There is more than a little bit of Hollywood hubris in the theater scene was we see Dillinger's reaction to the movie and his identification with the crook (played by Clark Gable) who is defiantly facing his own death. According to the film's production notes, and according to some historians, this film is more accurate than most previous films depicting Dillinger, yet some historical facts have been altered to make the film more dramatic.
The film works as an action movie and that is about all. There are excellent performances by Depp, Cotillard, Bale, Crudup and others. Crudup, especially, is hard to recognize as he disappears completely and convincingly into his role as he has done time and again. Despite the great performances and the relative historical accuracy and the great production design, taking us back to the 1930s, it still doesn't seem like a Depression-era movie. Instead, it seems modern. It also seems very shallow. No character emerges from the film with depth and none really earns our sympathy. Perhaps what is missing most is context. All the characters in the film seem to exist without historical context. They have no past and they have no future. They only have the present and even that isn't nailed down. They drift along in a temporary cinematic artifice. Nothing has sticking power. It is an empty costume drama with machine guns blazing. As an action movie, it is O.K., but it will have you wondering “is that all there is, and who were those guys, really?” when it is over. This film rates a B.
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