Disappointing, inaccurate Dillinger biopic of squandered potential
Aug 9, 2011
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
As Michael Mann is no stranger to the topic of career criminals, it seems as though John Dillinger's famous two-year crime spree would be the ideal subject for a filmmaker whose best work has often focused on tragic, principled professional felons. Dillinger burned hot and fast, and the brisk pace of this feature's 140-minute running time reflects the rush of his famous final years. However, Mann's attempts to romanticize the exploits of a brutal, charismatic figure and unwillingness to convey them accurately irreparably encumber what could have been a much better movie.
Impressive as Dillinger, the usually elfin Depp presents himself convincingly as the hardened bank robber and cop killer; he also looks the part, especially when furnished with the legend's up-slicked hair, patchy mustache and paunch. While his portrayal is surely more sentimental than the man actually was, his physique and especially demeanor bear a memorable resemblance - Dillinger's mumbling, Indiana accent and assured swagger are all reproduced with surprising accuracy. Most of the supporting cast serve mostly to reinforce Depp's larger-than-life role, but there are some standouts among them. As J. Edgar Hoover, Billy Crudup is suitably sleazy and uptight, characterizing the young FBI Director as the tense and demanding figure that he certainly was. Stephen Graham's brutally manic assumption of Baby Face Nelson is equally effective. However, Bale's role as groundbreaking FBI G-man Melvin Purvis is problematic. Here, the nervous and fidgety agent who reportedly never discharged a firearm in all his years of duty coolly guns down Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd himself. In reality, Nelson and Floyd were likely killed under Purvis' supervision by special agent Herman Hollis and police captain Chester Smith, respectively, months after Dillinger was shot to death. Bale's resemblance to Purvis himself is vague and while his performance is fine, the role provides little depth for an accomplished actor to plumb. Public Enemies has no actual use for two handsome leading men, so Bale's presence necessitates absurd liberties and his talents are squandered. Playing Dillinger's longtime girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, Marion Cotillard is charming, even when her character is unnecessarily brutalized. Bill Camp reliably affects Frank Nitti's manner, but he looks almost nothing like the high-strung mob boss.
The production of this film is striking, but terribly flawed. The period design is immaculate, and its exhibition of Chicago's muted Depression-era extravagance is especially stirring. Much of this was shot on location in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and the authenticity of these locations are utilized to great effect. Mann's persistent use of hand-held shots is frequently and needlessly disconcerting, and while many of the action scenes are quite good, nothing here is anywhere near so arresting or focused as his best work. To mention that this film's scoring is flawed is a considerable understatement. The popular music of the period (especially Billie Holiday's famous recording of Am I Blue?) ably evokes its zeitgeist, but Elliot Goldenthal's score is distractive, overbearing and probably the worst effort of the composer's uneven oeuvre. I don't know that this is necessarily Mann's fault, as he isn't accustomed to this sort of error in judgment; every inappropriate orchestral swell really does sound like a studio's attempt to ensure that its audience-friendly movie-making formula is utilized, regardless of how unbalanced the result is.
It must be mentioned that many of the pivotal events in Dillinger's career are afforded extraordinary (if embellished) enactments here: the robbery of Chicago's First National Bank, his ingenious escape from the Crown Point county jail and his getaway from the botched FBI raid at the Little Bohemia Lodge. Even the inaccuracies of these sequences don't detract from their power. However, the screenplay's erratic acquaintance with reality is the movie's ultimate downfall. The watchdogs at the Little Bohemia Lodge are notably absent; Purvis mentions the Immigration and Naturalization Service to Anna Sage, even though deportation was the domain of the Department of Labor at that time; Hoover is excoriated by Senator McKellar in a subcommittee hearing almost two years before it was actually held. Much of the dialogue (and especially Hoover's) is far more expository than realistic. Many more inaccuracies could be listed, but none of these are so egregious as what was omitted from this movie: Dillinger's exciting pillage of two police arsenals in Indiana and Hoover's grandstanding in the immediate aftermath of the arch-criminal's death. The reenactment of Dillinger's death is this film's single greatest failing. Following an admirable homage to Manhattan Melodrama, the shooting is depicted in a hokey and protracted manner, replete with obvious CGI blood and inaccurate bullet wounds. There was a time when this sort of gaucherie would have been unimaginable in one of Mann's films.
When he isn't churning out trite genre fare (Ali, Collateral, both incarnations of Miami Vice), Mann occasionally creates solid movies: Thief, Manhunter, Heat and The Insider. This movie is an anomaly for him, neither great nor trivial. For those who are devoted to his work, or that of Depp or Bale, this is probably required viewing. But he's hardly at his best here, this doesn't come close to achieving its potential and for the casual moviegoer or serious cinema enthusiast, this is a polished and spoilt curiosity.
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