There is a lot that could be said about Public Enemies—a lot, for example, about the HD digital photography which is perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the film for many audiences. For a really insightful take on the visual style of the film, I recommend Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times (a review I happen to totally agree with).
I enjoyed the film. It is beautiful to look at and a fascinating rendering of the criminal underworld. It is definitely a Michael Mann film, and thoroughly comfortable in the company of his other crime classics like Heat or Collateral.
The film is about John Dillinger—an iconic American criminal in the most hardened sense of the word. The film is about his criminal behavior and his continual outrunning of the authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, G-Men, Christian Bale, and some no-nonsense Texan lawmen), but it’s also about his persona. He was a celebrity, a fashionable womanizer, a face every American knew, feared, and in some ways respected.
As Dillinger, Johnny Depp unsurprisingly hits the bullseye. Some will argue that his acting in this film is “minor Depp” and consists mainly of iconic posing, Tommy-gun shooting and simply looking suave and cool in front of Mann’s numerous high-def close-ups. But that is exactly the point. Depp’s Dillinger is incredibly self-aware and comfortable in the spotlight, if not in his own skin. The extent to which he has a stable sense of his own identity is inextricably tied to his celebrity and criminal clout. As long as he is on the run, robbing banks, and stealthily usurping the standards of class and law, he knows who he is. His image on the “Public Enemy #1” posters is exactly how he wants to conceive of himself.
Depp’s Dillinger in Public Enemies feels very similar to Brad Pitt’s Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both actors play these criminal icons in understated ways that emphasize visual grandeur and iconic posturing. Both films are about American crime, celebrity, and how we can or cannot relate to larger-than-life antiheroes. Both films have gun battles and death and the slow killing-off of the villainous allies and gang buddies of the central figures. Both end with the iconic men being shot from behind in appropriately dramatic (and yet almost anticlimactic) fashion.
And like Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, Depp’s Dillinger never feels completely relatable; we never get a full or deep sense of who he is or what exactly motivates his criminal impulses. All we know is that Depp, like James, enjoys being bad. He doesn’t know how to be good—though there are glimpses (subtle flinches of the eye, moments of emotion, etc) when we can see that he wants to be good or regrets ever turning to the dark side. We know he loves a woman, for example (Marion Cotillard), and that he likes baseball, movies, good clothes, and fast cars. But beyond that we are in the dark about his character—if only because he himself is not sure of who or why he is.
There are numerous times in the film where he says something about how he only cares about the now—having fun in the present. And this makes sense for a person like him. The past is full of darkness, evil-doing, and lost innocence. The future contains an almost certainly ugly end to his criminal free-for-all. The present is the only place he can exist, and that is one of the reasons why he is such a hard character to read. His identity comes only through his situation and circumstance. It is not deeply rooted. It only comes through the immediate impression he gives off to bystanders, cops, fellow criminals, and everyday people who see his face on posters and FBI newsreel footage.
In this way I think Mann’s unorthodox photography in the film makes perfect sense. People have complained that the HD digital, handheld look of the film is anachronistic and too distracting. It undercuts the believability of the 30s era milieu and brings too much attention to itself, they say.
But this is indeed the point. Depp’s Dillinger is best—indeed only—understood through the camera lenses and the perceptions of external observers. Mann underscores this by making it extraordinarily clear that this is a movie, that you are viewing these people through a camera’s rendering—a camera that is moving, present and perceptive in ways that neither you nor Dillinger could ever be. It is intrusively hyper-realistic and reveals more about Dillinger than perhaps he even knew of himself, which is the reason why a film like this is so valid and so haunting.
On one hand, the film is complicit in the maintenance of Dillinger’s mythic iconography. One gets the sense that if a team of HD digital cinematographers were sent back to 1933 to follow Dillinger around, Dillinger would glory in the attention and feel most himself in front of the hyper-attentive, deeply probing cameras. But—as with Jesse James—the conspicuously cinematic mediation of the man’s myth, especially via the sometimes brutal and unforgiving form of HD, also serves to demythologize. It unsaddles the epic story of its more romantic adornments and florid embellishments, leaving us with a dark, cold, hard-edged reality that feels far from the storybook world of gangs-and-guns adventure in which Dillinger and James would probably want to be remembered.