I've seldom seen a modern film subjected to the kind of visual deconstruction that greeted Michael Mann's Public Enemies, at least upon its initial release; it was hard to find anyone remotely film-savvy who didn't have an opinion on the way in which Mann chose to shoot his biographical portrait of the final months of famed Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. There's nothing surprising about the look of the film within the Mann canon--it falls directly within the style he's been steadily developing throughout the decade (particularly in his last two pictures, Collateral and Miami Vice). He shoots in tight and up close, artfully arranges the compositions within his wide 2.35:1 frames (few filmmakers play as impressively with foreground and background), and shoots much of his action on loose, handheld, high-def digital video.
There's no question that the doc-style camerawork lends a you-are-there immediacy to the action on screen--it's just that it is, at first, somewhat disorienting to see a period story shot in such a distinctly contemporary style, and this appears to be the hang-up of the film's critics. But must every period film shoot exclusively in the style of the films from that time? And if so, why was I the only one singing Soderbergh's praises when he shot The Good German like a 1940s movie?
Mann's story begins in 1933 with a daring jailbreak that puts folk hero bank man John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) back out on the streets. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (the terrific Billy Crudup), attempting to up the agency's profile, makes Dillinger "public enemy number one" and taps agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who tracked and killed Pretty Boy Floyd, to head up the search for Dillinger. Meanwhile, Dillinger takes up with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), an exotic beauty who he seems to pick up on a whim before pledging himself to her for life.
The screenplay (by Ronan Bennett, Mann, and Ann Biderman) has its pluses and minuses. The dialogue is terse and tough as nails; I like how Dillinger tells a bank manager, "You can be a dead hero or a live coward--get it open," or tells an associate, "I'm asking you once, and I just did." The film is also admirably short on bullshit psychology--we don't see Dillinger as a child or a younger man, are given no clues as to why he is the way that he is. That refusal to engage in Freudian shorthand, to play by the rules that seem to govern our idea of what biographical film is and how it works, may be part of the reason that Public Enemies had trouble connecting with some audiences--just as Mann's Ali did back in 2001.
Neither of these films have the epic scope, slick polish, and narrative discipline we've come to expect from biographical drama. But he's doing something that's perhaps more interesting. He's using this particular kind of filmmaking--handheld camera, limited timeframe, non-expositional (and non-presentational) dialogue and scene structure--to create a fly-on-the-wall historical pictures, faux-vérité snapshots instead of all-encompassing portraits (which are basically impossible to do in two hours anyway).
Of course, this kind of elliptical storytelling has its drawbacks. Dillinger's accomplices never really emerge as particularly memorable or compelling characters (and, for that matter, neither do Purvis's). In spite of a real narrative thrust, the film drags more than you'd think; it runs a too-slack 140 minutes and meanders from scene to scene, especially in the second act. And in general, for whatever reason, it never quite clicks together the way Mann's best films do; ultimately, when all's said and done, it's a collection of very good scenes.
But they are, in fact, very good scenes. There's a bit early on where Dillinger comes to Billie's coat check job and sweeps her away, sweet-talking her while giving the business to a priggish customer, and it's just plain dynamite. A jailbreak scene around the midway mark is messy, jittery, unpolished, and ruthlessly effective (given an uncompromising tightness by Mann's decision to eschew the use of score there), and it is followed immediately by a giddily well-executed beat that wrings suspense from a leisurely stoplight. The marvelous sequence in which Dillinger takes a leisurely stroll around the Chicago Police Department (taking care to check out their "Dillinger Bureau") would stretch the film's credibility, if it weren't based in fact. A shoot-out between federal agents and Dillinger's accomplices at a remote lodge has a stark, frenzied urgency, amplified by the unforgiving darkness and hot muzzle flashes (the pulpy digital photography has an almost sensuous quality here), to say nothing of the sharp, tinny gunshots--the entire sequence feels captured, not choreographed, and it's electrifying. And the climax at the Biograph Theater is just about perfect, bringing this unconventional biopic to an arrestingly satisfying conclusion.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Universal brings Public Enemies to Blu in a two disc set: one 50GB Blu-ray disc of the movie and bonus features, and one digital copy disc for viewing the film on portable devices. Just a sidebar here: I've never had as much trouble with a Blu-ray disc as I had with this one. It could very easily be operator error or my less-than-stellar player, but I found the load times interminable, the start-up trailers endless and difficult to navigate out of, and the menu buggy, particularly coming in and out of bonus features (when one ended, it took me back to the menu animation, but no menu options; when neither the menu, enter, or play buttons would do anything, I ended up doing yet another full system shut-down).
For my money, Public Enemies looks better on Blu-ray than it did in theaters; the VC-1 encoded 2.40:1 image seems sharper and less smeary on Blu than on celluloid, more stable and sturdy. While some of the fast-moving wide shots are a touch messy, close-ups are astonishingly detailed; you can see every pore on Depp's face. Black levels are rich and deep, grain is present but no distracting, and color saturation is quite good (except when purposefully washed-out, as in the near-sepia tones of Dillinger's arrival in Indiana); Mann mostly uses a cool palate for the FBI scenes, and warmer colors and lighting for Dillinger's sequences (particularly the beautifully shot, sun-kissed racetrack scene). The busy images of the Pretty Boy Floyd chase (through a forest of vivid green grass and leafy trees) are well-rendered, and shadowy scenes (like Dillinger and Billie's first night together) look marvelous.
Edge enhancement is sometimes present, but frankly isn't terribly bothersome; there is a noisy or flickery shot here or there, but nothing that detracts from the overall experience. The transfer probably won't convert any of the film's aesthetic critics, but the rest of us will be quite pleased by the work Uni has done here.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is richly immersive and quite impressive. The film rotates between mostly quiet dialogue scenes and high-decibel shoot-outs and robberies, and handles both equally well; dialogue is clear and consistently audible, while the cracking gunshots and fast cars pop and roar through the speakers. Busy soundscapes (like the nightclub where Billie and Dillinger first meet) make fine use of all channels. There are only a couple of fleeting moments where music and effects overwhelm the understated dialogue.
Spanish and French 5.1 DTS 5.1 tracks are also available, as is a Descriptive Video Track. English SHD, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered as well.
Director Michael Mann is one of the best talkers in the business, and his Audio Commentary is a real treat--insightful, informative, and fact-packed. He talks at length about the history behind the story, rattling off names and dates like a Depression-era historian, but also discusses the film's themes, relationships, and production. It's a fine track.
"Larger than Life: Adversaries" (10:19) focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, utilizing clips from the film, vintage newsreel footage, thoughts from the actors and Purvis's son, and insights from Mann. "Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies" (20:32) is a more straight-ahead making-of featurette, but it's a very good one, utilizing great-looking HD behind-the-scenes footage and an assortment of interviews with Mann and his cast and crew. Next up is "Last of the Legendary Outlaws" (8:44), which hones in on Dillinger from a historical perspective (and includes more wonderful old newsreels), while "On Dillinger's Trail: The Real Locations" (9:48) details the challenges of recreating the early 1930s in the film (with the help of many of the original locations). "Criminal Technology" (9:39) uses technical advisors and historians (in addition to Mann and Depp) to discuss the considerable advantage that criminals of the time had over their law enforcement counterparts.
The "Gangster Movie Challenge" feature is a trivia game with questions from several Universal-released gangster flicks, including Scarface, Casino, Carlito's Way, and Public Enemies itself. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, spotlighting several Uni trailers and allowing viewers to access the disc's excellent U-Control features: a Historical Interactive Timeline, with picture-in-picture interviews and historical photos and footage to match the onscreen action, and a Picture-In-Picture option with complimentary behind-the-scenes footage. Both are very good, if slightly cumbersome to navigate.
Mann ultimately doesn't quite bring the whole thing off, and that's a shame; with a tighter script and a bit more self-control, he might have approached the perfection of Heat or The Insider. But there's a part of me that's not quite sure he's even shooting for that kind of "well-made film" anymore; he seems less interested in making a perfect film than in making a spontaneous, interesting picture that lives and breathes. If that's the case, Public Enemies may be one of his greatest achievements: an experimental French New Wave riff cleverly disguised as a summer blockbuster. Kudos, Mr. Mann.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.