Depp's charm obscures Dillinger's true nature in 'Public Enemies'

Posted: Thursday, July 09, 2009

It is a good thing Wikipedia is free. Every time a movie like "Public Enemies" comes out - a movie based on historical events and real people - I inevitably wind up at Wikipedia reading up on the folks I have just seen depicted. With Michael Mann's new film about John Dillinger (based on the book, "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34"), there are countless criminals and lawmen with their own links and back-stories. At first the objective is just to figure out how far Mann and company deviated from real life, but before long it is simply damned good reading!

The tricky part about watching "Public Enemies" is to keep in mind that the actual John Dillinger was in all likelihood not quite as charming or likeable as Johnny Depp is playing John Dillinger. You also have to remind yourself that Michael Mann is a fantastic filmmaker and, that being the case, his sympathies and opinions about Dillinger and his gang, or Hoover (Billy Crudup) and the F.B.I. for that matter, can quite easily become yours if you let them. It is a tightrope of sorts that you have to walk as you watch "Public Enemies."

By all means, enjoy the story. Soak up the history and form your own opinions. Root for Dillinger (Depp) if you want to. Just remember that the actual gang and the things they did, the things the FBI did back in the 1930s ... there were no ending credits, and there was no Michael Mann or Johnny Depp.

"Public Enemies," thanks to history, certainly is not lacking for storyline or characters. Dillinger and his various co-criminals were men who totally embraced the idea that robbing banks was a decent way to make a living. Along the way however, whether they intended to from the beginning or not, they ended the lives of numerous people (mostly security guards and cops). To Mann's credit, he does not hide that fact and "Public Enemies" shows one such murder in the opening moments. Even, then, if you go in hoping against reason that the movie-Dillinger can meet some sort of happy ending, such notions are erased quickly. The movie rule (even if you're the hero, you don't get to kill innocent people and survive the film) obviously applies in real life, too.

We know going in how the story ends; John Dillinger was gunned down by the F.B.I. leaving a movie theater. So, where's the drama?

The drama in "Public Enemies" stems from Mann's ability to make you forget you already know the ending. It stems from Depp's charismatic performance as a criminal who can't help it; he likes robbing banks! He likes being a fugitive, and he's pretty good at it too. If Dillinger smirked to himself with self-satisfaction half as much as Depp does in "Public Enemies" then he was probably a happy camper. The tension comes from F.B.I. Agent Melvin Purvis (an even keeled Christian Bale) and his tireless pursuit of Dillinger. Anxiety seeps into the audience more than a little when Purvis and his team are more-or-less ordered to do what it takes to get answers from people like Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), Dillinger's girlfriend, and they torture her.

Drama is not the problem with "Public Enemies."

Length, on the other hand, is an issue. 140 minutes is a touch long, although I was never bored. Perhaps the biggest problem with "Public Enemies" is that it mostly left me wanting to know more.

I suppose, though, that is precisely why I am glad Wikipedia is free.

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