The massive financial rip-off masterminded by Bernard Madoff, an extended crime spree that harmed thousands, is proof enough that public enemies still walk among us. But Madoff the man is as dull a figure as his crimes are vivid. Not so John Dillinger, the brazen Depression-era bank robber. His fabled career busting into Midwestern banks and out of jails was brief — he was 31 years old when he was shot to death by FBI agents led by steely G-man Melvin Purvis in Chicago in 1934. But during Dillinger’s reign, the outlaw designated by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as Public Enemy Number One played his part with aplomb, happy to fill the bill as a tommy-gun-toting folk hero for a public who saw him as a defiant celebrity suitable for down-and-out times. As filmmaker Michael Mann takes pains to emphasize in his handsome, underheated gangster drama Public Enemies, the gent may have been murderous, but he had style.
In case there’s any doubt, the gangster-in-chief is played by Johnny Depp, one of the most effortlessly elegant, intriguingly self-contained American movie stars on screen today. But that mystery comes with a price. By the end of this arm’s-length study, Depp’s Dillinger comes across as an interesting cat, but never a knowable man — he’s a pop cultural phenomenon because the movie asserts he is, not because we believe it. We don’t feel the bank robber’s heartbeat the way we felt the agonies of Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower at the end of The Insider — ?or even grooved on the rhythms of cops Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs on Mann’s stylish Miami Vice.
Dillinger the gun-waving daredevil is first seen finessing a prison break with his henchmen — one of the director’s famously crisp, complex, assertive males-in-extremis transactions. Shooting in HD, Mann’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, conveys the sense that the flat location landscape signifies both limitless opportunity — and the impossibility of escape. Later, the wanted man dines, dances, and romances his lady love Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, the French Oscar winner from La Vie en Rose, working studiously in newly acquired English) when not busy taking the (bank’s) money and running. Throughout, Depp talks softly, making the most of those refined feminine features that once looked great in eyeliner as a pirate of the Caribbean, and now look swell framed by hats. He projects seriousness — and also telegraphs a hint of delight, as if Dillinger is tickled by what he’s getting away with, hooked on the romance? of outlaw stardom.
Mann, meanwhile, suggests that every character in this very masculine story is similarly beholden to individual obsessions; his upscale gangster pic is intent on making intellectual connections, sacrificing depth of character in the process. Purvis, played with a buttoned-down agent’s tight jaw by Christian Bale, is obsessed with an efficient, clean pursuit of justice, and as he and his team hunt Dillinger and his accomplices, the lawman is distressed to realize that purity of purpose isn’t easy to maintain in the new, modern? Federal Bureau of Investigation. In contrast, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, played with terrific bursts of ornate, egotistical menace by Billy Crudup, is shown to be hooked on — well, on something slightly rotten and certainly ruthless, something Purvis can’t quite understand and eventually can’t condone.
With its measured, team-produced screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, Public Enemies makes heavy business of the notion that Hoover ushered in? an era of ethically elastic law-enforcement procedures still recognizable today. Purvis is the existentially anxious 20th-century man caught in the middle of change he doesn’t like. Dillinger represents the end of a desperate golden era when poor people cheered for robbers who gallantly called female hostages ”sister.” But as a murderess and a jailhouse matron sing in the musical Chicago — another study of celebrity criminals — ”What ever happened to class?” Throughout his own? heinous career, Bernard Madoff wore only gray suits. John Dillinger wouldn’t have been caught dead in a costume so drab. Public Enemies re-creates clothes, but doesn’t fully fashion the man who wore them. B-