Movie Natters

"Public Enemies" is a movie for the times

Posted at 5:51 PM on July 1, 2009 by Euan Kerr

Michael Mann's retelling of the John Dillinger story is deliberately unsettling. It's not the shoot-outs and the gangster swagger, although that's there aplenty.

Johnny Depp hardens his jaw as Dillinger, displaying the dark edge to the outwardly gallant Dillinger. Mann sets him against the dogged FBI special agent Melvin Purves (Christian Bale) who has been charged by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to "take off the white gloves."

The government agents become more and more violent in Hoover's war on crime, particularly as Dillinger evades them time and again. Meanwhile Dillinger finds himself squeezed from the other side as organized crime making steady money from gambling and booze decides his headline-grabbing bank heists are bad for business.

What's unsettling is how Mann presents the story as oblique and direct references to the times of the Tommy gun wielding mobsters and our own.

Life in a depression changes ideas about heroes and villains. Dillinger, for all his violence, was cheered by ordinary people for sticking it to the banks. The FBI is working to end a public menace, but their methods lead to prisoners being beaten and bystanders being gunned down. The story is 75 years old, but it's all a little too close for comfort.

Mann's use of HD video gives the look of the film a contemporary cast which also breaks down the safe cocoon of history. We all know what's going to happen to Dillinger in front of that Chicago movie house, but Mann and Depp bring us right into the center of the horror.

St Paul history buffs will be disappointed by "Public Enemies" only passing reference to the Saintly City. Maybe that's a film for another day.

It would seem that there could well be another day though as Mann has breathed life back into what was a moribund genre, and brought history into the present.

July 2009
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