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Review of Public Enemies

By (July 3, 2009) No Comment

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recently announced their intention to increase the number of nominees in the category of Best Picture, from five nominees to ten. This, no doubt, pleased the producers of Public Enemies. With the expanded nomination process, this slickly produced, well directed but uneven drama will probably snag a coveted Best Picture nod.

The Best Picture field is not new to Michael Mann, Public Enemies’ director and producer. His masterpiece, 1999’s The Insider, walked away empty handed, as did his well-crafted follow up, Collateral. Fans of those films will recognize immediately that this is Mann’s work. He uses his handheld camera often and to great affect, something that most directors working with his budget wouldn’t dare to try. Mann’s expert camera work creates scenes that are both graphically violent and cartoonish, moving quickly, leaving the audience to wonder what hit them.

Where many films are cursed with a lack of good ideas, Public Enemies is stuffed with too many. The film starts in 1933 and follows the FBI, specifically Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) pursuit of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, handsome as ever) and his gang. Bullets fly at regular intervals as the Feds chase Dillinger and Co. across the Midwest before famously getting their man outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. What the movie never makes clear is why the audience should care about any of this.

When the film opens with an enraged Hoover ordering his publicist to leak information about Congress to Walter Winchell while Dillinger receives a hero’s welcome en route to an Indiana prison, it seems that Mann is maybe making a film about the nature of celebrity. However, the point is dropped, and we never see Depp’s Dillinger received this way again.

At times, the film seems poised to be a cog in the machine of Dillinger’s legend, portraying him as a depression-era Robin Hood. At one robbery about 40 minutes in, he refuses a bank customer’s change, claiming he’s only after the bank’s money. But once again, this focus is dropped, another facet of the character we do not see again.

The film seems to find its focus as a cat and mouse thriller in the last hour, as the audience can see the noose tightening around Dillinger and his crew. But at this point, one hour and forty minutes have ticked by, and we’re lost. We could have been watching Bale’s cat chase Depp’s mouse, but instead we were stuck watching a cat chase its tale.

The production design, by Nathan Crowley, and the costumes, by the always dependable Colleen Atwood, are marvelous, making Public Enemies beautiful to look at. Depp and Bale square off nicely against each other and Jason Clarke, as one of Dillinger’s most trusted men, is excellent. Marion Cotillard is onscreen too briefly but manages to make an impression in the throwaway role of Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s lady love. Billy Crudup, underused as always, is spectacular as J. Edgar Hoover but occasionally seems to be in a different movie, a movie I might have liked better. Note to producers: Just because Crudup has leading man looks, don’t be afraid to make him a character.

Watching Public Enemies felt like a chore, something I don’t think a movie should ever feel like. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film is too long, considering the best moments were in the trailer. Part of the frustration is that there is a great film buried in Michael Mann’s generally mediocre effort.

The Bottom Line: The exquisite production deserves to be seen on a big screen but no one will blame you if you sit this one out.