Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Movie Review: Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp

John Dillinger is the sort of outlaw born to have movies made about him. The 2009 film Public Enemies directed by Michael Mann takes this folk hero, killer, and "public enemy number one" and skillfully presents a story about much more than a notorious bank robber.

The super actor, legend in his own time, Johnny Depp takes on the role of John Dillinger, and, as expected, produces a nuanced performance that is both low key and cocky. John Dillinger was famous in the 1930s for daring bank robberies in which his gang would burst into a busy bank, well dressed and armed with machine guns, empty out the vault, and roar away in a fast car. Dillinger made for great newsreels with his public relations ploys of giving bank customers their money back. But his fame was assured by his skill at busting out prison and jail.

Dillinger in his day enjoyed folk hero status because he was looting and embarrassing banks that were institutions much reviled during the Great Depression. He lived openly in Chicago enjoying fancy clubs and the silent protection of a sympathetic public.

As if a movie with Johnny Depp in it is not enough to guaranty quality, Christian Bale, another wondrous talent, plays the role of Melvin Purvis the federal lawman put in charge of hunting down raucous law breakers of the era like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Purvis is promoted to this position by J. Edgar Hoover who is the director of the Bureau of Investigation and very keen to expand the bureau's influence by taking out these high profile outlaws.

The script of Public Enemies makes the point that the media hoopla about bank robbers, especially John Dillinger, was being leveraged by the federal government to expand its law enforcement reach with the passage of a new crime bill.

The story also emphasizes the technological advances that were changing society. Purvis makes a big deal about using careful methodology and evidence collection to track Dillinger. But the point is not limited to the law enforcement side. Larger technological advances are taking place in the criminal world. Telephones have allowed crime organizations to set up elaborate multi-state gambling operations that bring in tens of thousands of dollars every day. This new advance in crime systems is shown as the reason John Dillinger and his kind became obsolete. Their high profile bank robberies and constant shooting of people bring law enforcement heat down on the crime bosses. In contrast, the switch to the back office telephone operations only requires paying off a few local officials. These quiet crime systems make way more money than robbing banks.

John Dillinger is cast out from his own criminal world. He is a working man replaced by machines and left to fend for himself in a hostile world.

On the law enforcement side of the story, Melvin Purvis is quietly dismayed by the tactics to which he must resort in order to trap Dillinger. Suspects are openly tortured, and Purvis's morals must yield to larger forces. His technological approach to crime fighting ultimately proves insufficient and only the medieval giving of pain and various other threats deliver the results he needs.

Public Enemies is a real top shelf movie. It never drags. Every scene is captivating. The lead actors are commanding. The settings and costumes are authentic. The personal stories are woven skillfully into the larger political and social forces. As for the character of John Dillinger I appreciated how the story did not take the trite approach of making him out as some misunderstood person who wished he could be good. He liked robbing banks. He liked the easy money. He liked being famous and chatting with reporters. He thinks it's never going to end and he can do anything. Of course it's not true, but it's great while it last, just like this movie.