Michael Mann's gone from being an innovator in what is often called the Mtv style of the 80's (think pastels and rain-soaked streets) to one of the most forthcoming in the use of digital video. Whether you liked his 2006 Miami Vice revamp (like me) or hated it (like everyone else), one thing that must be acknowledged is that it doesn't look like any other flick. The smoothness of movement in the format (accentuated by Mann's often questionable choice of having it overtly handheld with bumps and jarring movements within the frame) seems the perfect 21st century counterpart for the high tech equipment and technical garble that Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell spout throughout the movie. So, acknowledging all of this, how does this format work when the setting is switched from 2006 Miami (a place that seems ultra-modern) to Depression-era Chicago? I ask this question primarily because Mann mostly uses the same guns in his holster to shoot Public Enemies. Despite all of the grimy takes on period dramas lately (think The Proposition or, even better, Deadwood), Public Enemies might be the first time that what I'd say is a modern aesthetic was fully applied to a period narrative. Grimy locales and filthy dialogue are surely later takes on that social milieu, but the aforementioned titles are done largely using basic aesthetic strategies. In Public Enemies, Mann takes the sloppy, handheld look and the motion-blurred yet strangely smooth DV motion and applies it to a historical narrative.
"Historical narrative" is the important word here because it's not the narrative or its time period that creates the tension between the new technology and the period piece in Public Enemies. However, the trappings of the historical narrative as applied to film, namely in terms of costuming, art direction, and set design, create a certain disjunction that, I suppose, film could suture in the past with an aesthetic of chiaroscuro lighting, smoke and fog, and the comparatively mirage-like movement created by celluloid. That's not to say that HD digital video and a period setting are incongruous in general, but the scrubbed-clean costumes, the oddly artificial sets, and the studied Hollywood dialogue do not seem to suit this new aesthetic, to an extent that I spent the first forty-five minutes of the film attempting to get used to the style of it. Needless to say, outdoor scenes of action fared better (is there anyone working in Hollywood now who can shoot an action scene as confidently and wonderfully as Mann? Don't think so).
And when the DV works, Mann approaches creating something like a new aesthetic. The close-ups in this movie are numerous and, owing largely to a talented (and beautiful) cast, rewarding. Individual moments, a great underslung shot of Depp leaping over a teller's booth, have a certain stamp to them that makes one wish Mann would have strove for the whole film to make this kind of sense. Instead, it falls somewhere between a costume drama and a tightly-reined, digitally shot piece of gangster cinema.