Public Enemies

John Dillinger, one of the most prolific bank robbers in all of American history, once again serves as the subject matter for a movie. 75 years after Dillinger’s infamous death at the hands of the FBI, acclaimed director Michael Mann (“Heat”) brings his vision of the popular criminal’s sordid history to life with “Public Enemies”.

“Public Enemies” follows the notorious exploits of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a man both extremely dangerous and yet, well loved by the public who saw him as a modern-day Robin Hood. After being declared the FBI’s top priority by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), Dillinger and his band of criminals engage in a seemingly never-ending game of cat and mouse with government agents led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). As the game escalates even further, it becomes increasingly clear that a deadly final showdown between the law and the lawless is inescapable.

This film, “Public Enemies”, is the eighth attempt at brining Dillinger’s story to life. After so many previous versions one can’t help but wonder, “What could Michael Mann’s newest iteration of the outlaw’s tale possibly have to say that hasn’t already been said?”

For starters, this version of John Dillinger and his criminal exploits is more historically accurate than anything previously done; although, that’s not to say that this one isn’t without its share of fallacies (in truth there are numerous ones). Written by Ronan Bennet, Michael Mann, and Ann Biderman (“Primal Fear”) the story plays out similarly to Mann’s previous heist film, “Heat”; however, despite the similarities in pacing and structure, the film doesn’t feel like a retread. Unlike, “Heat” which was a character driven heist drama, this film is almost 100% a character study. While there are several bank heist sequences within the movie, the majority of the film is spent on exploring the various aspects of Dillinger’s life; from his loves to his own criminal moral code (yes, he does have a code he lives by) to his relationship with the media and the common man. Truth be told, had this film not focused more on the person rather than the crimes then it wouldn’t have been nearly as engaging, because at that point it becomes just another heist movie.

While I enjoyed the examination of John Dillinger’s life, there were moments of the film that could have been edited out to make the pacing flow better. Several times throughout some of the scenes between Dillinger and Billie (his lover), and other scenes not featuring those two, the story begins to slow to a crawl. I believe Michael Mann and his editing team should have noticed this problem and been more judicious in their cuts; therefore removing those lulls in the story. Had this happened then the movie would have been much tighter, potentially more engaging for the audience (given that too many lulls can cause interest to wane), and brought the running time down closer to the two hour mark which most audience members seem to prefer. That’s not to say that because of these pacing issues that I didn’t enjoy the movie, I still enjoyed it, I just recognize that there are ways it could have been made better.

Of course, when dealing with an historical drama, one must discuss the accuracy of events being depicted or lack thereof, whatever the case may be. In this instance, the screenplay stays close to the realm of historical fact, but there are several instances where creative license comes into play for a more dramatic effect or the film just blatantly rearranges events from history to suit its needs.

The creative license is most prominently on display during a scene around the middle of the film where FBI agent Melvin Purvis meets John Dillinger for the first time. According to commonly accepted history; these two men never formally met each other. Although the scene is pivotal within the cat-and-mouse game being played by the two men; the fact that it never happened and was added in for dramatic purposes is frustrating when watching a film one presumes to be based on fact. Plus, the timing of the scene within the movie lends some credence to the comparison being drawn between this film and “Heat”, as the two main characters in that film first meet in a key scene around the middle of that movie as well.

Other problems within the film’s storyline would be the noticeable inaccuracies surrounding numerous murders. A few key plot points within the film hinge upon the deaths of certain individuals; however, their deaths either don’t occur in the manner depicted or within the timeframe being referenced. Another area of contention for some is whether or not John Dillinger actually had a romance with Billie Frechette. While the depiction of the romance within the film is not necessarily inaccurate, it’s also not a concrete fact.

While the film is steeped mostly in fact and presents the most historically accurate account of John Dillinger’s criminal life, I find myself disappointed by some of the decisions made for dramatic purposes within the story. To me, if you’re going to make a movie based on an actual person that references other actual people and events, then do not modify history to suit your needs. Instead, present the story as accurately as possible with only minor creative license being employed for the areas that are not completely certain in history’s eyes.

I understand that many historical dramas contain numerous inaccuracies in order to create a more dramatic piece of cinema (to be honest, I thoroughly enjoy many of them). Although, whether I enjoy the film or not, the facts should not be ignored, rearranged, or manipulated in excess. I admit that I enjoy “Public Enemies”, but I must acknowledge that the inconsistencies between the film and reality do detract from my overall enjoyment.

An area that excels despite the historical inaccuracies, and does the best it can as far as actual likenesses go, is the film’s casting. No matter what the subject matter, whenever Michael Mann sets out to make a film he always manages to attract A-list talent and this movie is no exception.

Leading the cast is the chameleon-like Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy), playing what could be considered his most normal role, in terms of appearance and mannerisms, in years. Depp exudes throughout the film all of the confidence, charm, and charisma that helped make John Dillinger into one of the most popular criminals (among the people) of all time. Even when brandishing a loaded weapon while robbing a bank, John’s moral code allowed him to be continually viewed as a Robin Hood of sorts. This strange dichotomy of a man, seen as both hero and villain, would be a complicated role to undertake, yet Depp plays the duality that comprises John Dillinger effortlessly. With this role, Johnny Depp proves once more why he is one of the best actors of his generation.

In the main supporting roles are two equally impressive talents, Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) as FBI agent Melvin Purvis and actress Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) as Billie Frechette. Christian Bale adopts another American accent yet again, but there did seem to be some minor wavering in the accent’s consistency throughout the movie. Purvis has a slight southern drawl, which is different from the typical American accent Bale usually adopts (as seen in “The Dark Knight”). Perhaps, adding the southern inflection made the accent more difficult to master. Despite the small drawback (it wasn’t much at all); Christian still delivered an excellent performance that easily stands toe-to-toe with Johnny Depp’s.

Academy Award winning actress Marion Cotillard portrays John Dillinger’s supposed lover, Billie Frechette. Marion conveys such grace, warmth, and strength that she is instantly captivating in the surprisingly complicated role. In the beginning Billie is the quiet girl who is unsure of this charismatic man who has taken an interest in her; however, once she starts to immerse herself into Dillinger’s world she quickly shows the inner strength that had been laying in wait. Just like Johnny Depp’s role of John Dillinger was filled with duality and complexity, Billie offered Marion nearly the same challenges and she easily rose to meet them. Of course, one would expect nothing less from this Academy Award winning actress.

Lastly, actor Billy Crudup (“Watchmen”) shows up in several scenes (amounting to nothing more than an extended cameo) as FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Billy is a consistently reliable actor who has never really broken through in popularity despite roles in high-profile films, such as “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Watchmen”. Even with Billy’s consistent track record of performances, I feel that his portrayal in this film is too flat and ultimately ineffective, making Hoover appear completely uninteresting and uncharismatic. While there doesn’t appear to be a definitive consensus on just how charismatic J. Edgar Hoover truly was or wasn’t in reality. By my estimation, if a man can amass the level of power and influence Hoover did, he wouldn’t be able to do so if he was anything remotely resembling the depiction in this film.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed “Public Enemies” despite the brief lulls and slightly overlong run time; however, the historical inaccuracies lower my opinion of this film to an extent. If you ask me, historical inaccuracies to this degree (which is quite substantial in some instances) should never be allowed no matter how beneficial they may be to the overall dramatic narrative.

“Public Enemies” is rated R for violence and language.

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