Call me sentimental, but when I go to the movies, I like to see human beings looking back at me on the screen–meaning, of course, people who act like humans. I have seen my fair share of human beings on screen, I’m sorry to say, acting so rigidly and otherwise artificially that they come off as quite inhuman. Fortunately for me, this is not the case with Michael Mann‘s new film, Public Enemies. The movie’s two main characters, infamous bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI G-Man who led the pursuit of the criminal and his gang, are portrayed as remarkably human despite their legendary status in contemporary pop culture. After all, we have placed bank robbers from the Great Depression like Dillinger and methodically-minded Feds like Purvis into the web of American mythology over the past seven decades since their hey-day, and certainly, it is difficult for directors of films like Public Enemies to resist the temptation to glorify these types of characters and make them seem mythical onscreen. Mann does resist this temptation, fortunately, and so our two leading men are all too real, complete with weaknesses, fears, self-doubt, and so on; in short, we get both the lighter and darker shades of humanity. Like other movies of the genre, this film will appeal to fans of gun fights and jail breaks, but is pulls a fast one on these people because it does something that movies with gun fights and jail breaks do not always do: it requires the audience to feel emotions. I know–shocking.
It would have been very easy for Mann and Depp to craft a portrayal of Dillinger as the folk hero who threw caution to the wind and robbed from the rich to give to the poor; but that portrayal would not have been the real Dillinger. Certainly, that persona did exist at the time–the public loved the criminal, particularly due to his purported Robin Hood style of bankrobbery (leaving the bank customers with their money, for instance) and his slick, charismatic interactions with the media–and we do get a glimpse of the persona in the film, but it’s just a single viewpoint, something Dillinger notices and revels in as he’s being driven away to jail after being caught at one point. The majority of his portrayal, though, contrasts with the mythical Robin Hood persona: when it came down to it, John Dillinger was a hardened criminal, someone who could kill a man without blinking, and this is the man that we see on-screen. This is not to say that he is an unlikable villain, for we also see other, more endearing aspects of his personality, such as his concern for the well-being of his men, his desire to protect his girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and his anguish when he sees that his involvement with Billie gets her arrested and man-handled by the authorities. In short, he gives us a hero with some very unheroic traits. Depp’s delivery of the role is wholly believable, whether he is robbing a bank, busting out of prison with a fake gun, or even walking directly into the Dillinger Bureau of the Chicago Police Department and having a look around before walking out again (this last one, believe it or not, is apparently based on fact). We believe Depp as Dillinger, and not just because the two look alike; Depp makes us feel it, too.
On the other side of the law was Melvin Purvis, who gained fame for being the man who killed Pretty Boy Floyd. He is soon after promoted to the head of the FBI’s Chicago office by a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who believes that Purvis is the man who can prove to the politicians in Washington that the Bureau is important enough to deserve more money and man-power. Bale’s portrayal of Purvis is at first straightforward and a little dry, but soon after his pursuit of Dillinger becomes exceedingly bloody, we begin to see the reality of the situation take its toll on Purvis. For example, he defends his altogether inexperienced crew of men to Hoover, saying that if they do not get some more experienced agents in the Chicago office to help train the younger recruits, he is going to quit on the grounds that he cannot lead his men to slaughter. Later on, with his back to a vicious interrogation of a member of Dillinger’s gang who has just been shot in the back of the head, he doesn’t quite flinch, but does stare uncomfortably off into the distance, as though pondering the ethics of his new job. Likewise, when another agent is viciously interrogating Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie, going as far as beating her with a phone book and refusing her the right to use the bathroom, Purvis storms in and not only removes Billie from the situation, but picks her up and carries her to the Ladies’ Room, which he realizes she cannot walk to herself since she has been beaten past the point of being able to stand up. Clearly, Bale portrays Purvis as a man who wants to get his job done but who doesn’t want to give up his humanity to do so. Like Depp’s portrayal of Dillinger, Bale gives us a character who we can relate to, a hero who is far from perfect.
In addition to the wonderful character portrayals, Public Enemies also supplies us with some terrific writing. There is, for example, the repeated use of the jazz standard, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which plays during Dillinger and Billie’s first dance, returns later on when Dillinger and Billie are reunited after he breaks out from prison, and makes a last, touchingly sentimental appearance at the end of the film, when an agent reveals to Billie that Dillinger’s last words were, “Tell Billie I said, ‘bye bye blackbird'”. Mann, who co-wrote the screenplay, knows how to pull emotions from his audience, even in seemingly violence-dominated gangster films such as this one. But then again, Mann is hardly new at this, and while I cannot say that I appreciate all of his films, I can safely say that he knows how to portray humans–not to mention their emotions–on-screen. Indeed, after Billie hears this news, rather than showing her shed some tears and then dissolving to the next picture, we get a steady, unflinching shot of the tears streaming down her cheeks for several beats. Mann wants us to see this emotional reaction because it’s human, and as a filmmaker, he is in the business of portraying humanity.
If we were to specifically look at the plot of Public Enemies, it would seem that it is somewhat uneven since Dillinger’s death outside of a movie theater leaves us without any closure, particularly because he hasn”t really accomplished anything in the film except robbing several banks. You could argue that this is a tragedy of sorts, with Dillinger as your typical tragic hero whose flaw is that he lives life day-to-day without thinking of the future, but even that reading of the film doesn’t add up, for by the end of the film he does start to plan for the future–he plans to rob a train carrying millions of dollars in Federal Reserve money and then fly off somewhere “further away than Cuba”. This plan was apparently really conceived by Dillinger shortly before his death, so we cannot blame this one on the filmmaker. The real story simply leaves us with some loose threads, and since this is a film about real people–not their mythical characterizations–Mann needed to depict even those loose threads. In the end, I don’t suppose this lack of closure even matters, for we still have the lighter and darker shades of humanity before us on-screen, and I suppose I’d rather have that than a perfectly procedural plot any day.