Sunday, August 09, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)

I've never heard and seen a gunshot as ferociously certain as that final gunshot in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. That single gunshot, tame and quiet if compared to the numerous tommy gun battles that populate the film, killed John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), legendary bank robber. Along with the death of Dillinger, is the death of an era championed by criminals of unquestionable renown and mythified reputations. Mann maps the dying days of the era with the surehandedness of a watch-maker, unflinching to the temptation of showing off more than what is required for his purposes. He creates not a film about Dillinger, although Mann's camera delights in capturing every gesture, swagger, and posturing of Depp as the celebrated felon, but an approximated document of the moods of a period characterized by fear, fascination, respect, and awe of these public personalities. That gunshot could have come from anywhere (from the cowardly investigator whose hatred for Dillinger has become personal; or Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who was specifically tasked to kill Dillinger; or any anonymous cop who was stationed near the Biograph), and it did not really matter. Dillinger had to die that specific death and his body had to be ripped by the public like a basket full of souvenirs. The gunshot just had to happen.

That Public Enemies skirts from characterizing Dillinger only emphasizes Mann's insistence on differentiating myth from person. What we know of and learn about him from the film is limited to the reputation established from the various literature and popular representations through the years, Depp's wonderfully iconic portrayal, and the unsurprising romanticism as can be absorbed from his unabashed love angle with gorgeous mestiza coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars... and you. What else do you need to know?" tells Dillinger to Billie, before spiriting her away into a Depression-era fantasy. Mann channels his uniquely flirtatious Dillinger, and proposes the same Dillinger quote to his audience, manufacturing Public Enemies' Dillinger, not out of autobiographical notes and accurate recounts, but from the American myth that he has become, with his seamless bank robberies, his perfectly planned jailbreaks, his impeccably classy lawlessness (Mann adds a sequence in the film, arguably fictitious, where Dillinger visits the police station, enters the unit specifically assigned for his capture, walks around the office as the cops are busy watching a game, communicates with one of the cops by asking the score, and nonchalantly leaves the compound), and his fairy tale romance with the heartbreakingly tragic end, all overtake his actual history.

Mann makes use of digital video instead of film. The effect is even more apparent here, than in Collateral (2004) or Miami Vice (2006), where digital video complements the vastly modern and urban vistas that are dominated by steel, asphalt, and smog. The period milieu (Depression-era architecture, tommy guns, monochrome suits and automobiles) of Public Enemies feels anachronistic to its digital video aesthetics. In this case, the seeming anachronism is not a disadvantage, as it lends to the perceptual discord that resonates throughout the feature, giving the film a more palpable grit that bears more resemblance to the hyper-real actioners of this post-9/11 era to the stylized ones made during an era where an actual interaction between the public and such violence is more of a far-fetched nightmare than a distinct possibility. Grabbed by the neck by the arresting immediacy of the film's digital video aesthetic, the audience is left with no choice but to get swept away by Dillinger's daring exploits and the period-forced fantasies he proposes to fulfill, enough to smell the melancholic air of that era's eventual demise.

The film is not so much about an era that belonged solely to Dillinger that his timely death signaled its end. Public Enemies, much more than an auteurist recount of the death of an era (and this differentiates the film from such elegiac films like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and most recently, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008), films which primarily mourned the passing of the Old West by the deaths of the heroes that represented the era's virtues), sufficiently details the birth pains of a new era of evolving criminals and adapting law enforcers. When Dillinger witnesses his own obsolescence during the moment he is introduced to the future by a room of desk crooks amassing wealth far greater than any of his elegantly executed bank heists, he knew that he is being replaced. As his comrades' numbers dwindle, either by death, capture, or a logical decision to seek out surer ways of earning an illegal buck, the film retreats from edifying Dillinger into exposing his clever front. That the film ended with Billie in jail, being told by the cop that the fantasy of escape that Dillinger promised her is now an impossibility, simply summarizes the gargantuan lie that birthed these infamous criminals. Beyond their often told and retold exploits, the millions of dollars they robbed from the banks, their famous deaths, are the millions that will swallow anything, whether it be crooks turned into mystified idols, to momentarily escape their sorry lots in life. Truth be told, criminals post-Dillinger can never have the same plebeian charm of also being a dreamer, a toiler, a hero.


DKL said...

A thing that I enjoyed about this movie that not many talk about (apparently, I don't know a lot of people that did like this, actually) is Mann's emphasis on the rigid detail found in both professional bank robbing and the various procedures used by the FBI.

There's like these sequences where the feds would be listening in on phone conversation on vinyl and it's much more interesting than it should be; I also couldn't help but stare in awe at the switchboards and all the other sets they came up with in the movie (the bank vaults are ridiculously sexy for some reason).

Anyway, what I like about Mann is that he emphasizes on showing the viewer these procedural details that other people would generally skim over given that they're "uninteresting".

For example, in order to narrow down Johnny Depp's location, the Christian Bale character [Melvin Purvis] talks about utilizing a coat Dillinger left behind with a bank hostage and cross-referencing it with all the possible places it might've been made at and all known Dilliger locations and whatever... that stuff is REALLY interesting when you consider the context: when Purvis talks about advanced detective techniques, this stuff was most likely cutting edge back then.

In fact, the entire thing harkens back to Manhunter's most interesting sequence: in order to analyze a letter from the tooth fairy, they have to bring it to a crime lab, analyze it for possible clues, and then return it to Hannibal Lecter's cell without him knowing that it was done; what's remarkable about how Mann does this is that, by the very nature of how he directs the actors, you can actually FEEL the degree of professionalism these people possess...

The old guys Purvis hires on to be special consultants for his men in Public Enemies are actually very successful at conveying their years of experience (in that one scene at night in the woods, one of the guys talks about how they should set up a perimeter instead just charging in, as per Purvis' orders... and when Purvis doesn't heed to these suggestions, he pays a price... dead innocents [Bale's facial reaction to the dead people in the car is rather eerie] and dead g-men).

Also, a lot of people don't seem to like the use of digital video here, but I was mostly fascinated with it since it doesn't try too hard to make the movie seem "old"; that job was left to the sets and props and hairstyles and speech and whatever, so the camera doesn't need to take on that work...

Its use in the movie, for me, gave it a more better sense of realism; it's like someone took an HD camera and time-traveled back to the 1930s to shoot stuff (I was amused by Baby Face's James Cagney impression).

ALSO, some people seem to overlook the benefits of shooting in HD (even Sidney Lumet shoots in HD now); the night sequence in the woods was more interesting to me since it didn't seem to be artificially lit with big studio lighting (which is something that Mann talked about in Collateral)... and I'm under the impression that you can really only do that with HD (this is what Mann says, anyway).

And, finally, another thing I liked about the movie was its representation of the FBI; it's not as clean as movies like G-Men men make it out to be (G-men was a lot of fun... but, you know... it was like J. Edgar Hoover's propaganda tool, all in all)


Yeah, good stuff.

Nice write-up.

(I actually come here a lot by way of Noel Vera's blog)

Thinking about seeing Miyazaki's Ponyo next?

That was a lot of fun.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks DKL,

You said a lot about what I wanted to say and all your observations are spot-on (especially the de-glamorization of the cops; and the interest on the procedural).

I'm going to take up another Tagalog movie, before Ponyo. Ponyo, although I've only seen it through DVD, holds a special place in my heart, and I envy, with much violence, anybody who has seen it on big screen, hehe.

DKL said...

Admittedly, I'm not too enamored by the theater experience (I'm more of the home theater kind of guy... I like my bathroom breaks [I've got a bad bladder] and my close-caption subtitles [I'm not deaf, but I like being able to follow with every little detail int he dialog]), but one of the most interesting things about Ponyo in the theater is actually the audience reaction (whereas I don't really pay attention to it during a lot of movies I go out to see); it's really interesting to take note of what kids say [what they don't understand, for example; this little girl asks her grandma why Sousuke's mother is so mad and the grandma explains that it's because the father isn't coming home as promised] or what they find funny while watching the movie (when there's a look of joy on people's faces in the movie, the audience reacts amused by the imagery, recognizing the extent to HOW happy the character is by way of small things... that's pretty much the best sign of how Miyazaki finesses the crowd... in fact, the character acting in the movie is top notch, really... I was impressed at how classy the animation for Ponyo's mother is; the movement is AMAZING).

As for this movie, yeah, I'm interested in your thoughts about how the ending, while poignant, does point out the reality that the glamorization fed to the people about the bank-robbing was pretty much a myth... but, given the reality of what life was like back then, it's very likely that people bought into this glamorization (Billie goes to a restaurant and comments on how all the women are looking at her because she wears a $3 dress [upon second viewing of the movie, this detail is more interesting given how un-obviously Mann goes about the scene]... given stuff like that, it gives more ground as to why one would like to be swept away... I mean, she works a damn coat-hanging job); you know, like... Dillinger is brilliant at what he does [and people buy into it... I liked the guy talking about how Dillinger sung to him; he seemed like he was having a lot of fun], but the reality of it catches up with him (you talk about how a perfectly-planned heist doesn't bring in nearly as much money as the numbers racket)... it eventually gets to a point where, against Dillinger's better judgment, he actually has to bring Baby face Nelson on (whose completely obtuse about how to do thing correctly, as evidenced by his lack of subtlety when he starts shooting at a cop outside who doesn't even really seem to be doing anything)...

Oh, and going back to the professional stuff, notice how Bale handles the rifle at the beginning of the movie... it feels very precise (guess it helps that Mann puts his actors through live-round training... it really shows up in the final product, I feel).

But yeah... again, interesting read, your article, and I'm glad to know that someone else actually enjoyed this one (again... a lot of people I talked to found it dull, which I find disappointing given that there's a lot there).

Oggs Cruz said...

Transformers and GI Joe are dull. Public Enemies is thrilling.