Before you run out to see Public Enemies, the thing to remember about Michael Mann is that he’s never been much of a dramatist—you often get the sense he’s more concerned with the qualities of light on an actor’s face or with finding the perfect soundtrack selection than he is with the subject matter at hand. Give him something disposable, like Heat or Collateral, and he’ll elevate the material to operatic heights. Give him something fact-based, like The Insider or Ali, and the results tend to be more diffuse: The bigger picture fights to assert itself amid a series of vividly rendered anecdotes.
That should give you an idea of what Public Enemies is and, mainly, what it isn’t. For one thing, it isn’t The Untouchables—a film with crackling one-liners, dynamic characters or a grand visualization of a bygone Chicago. There are striking appearances by Union Station, Bridgeview Bank and what seems to be a digital El (Pat Quinn, as opposed to that other guy, gets a shout-out in the closing credits), but a good deal of Mann’s vision of the Depression is confined to close-up. The combination of terse dialogue and jittery hi-def video (a lower grade than Mann used on Collateral or Miami Vice) gives the film a distinctive, hyperreal feel; even with detailed set design, the closest analogue may be the soundstage America of Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
Nor does the movie burnish the Dillinger legend, exactly; it’s a rare case in which the script actually downplays a real-life character’s charisma and waggishness, which are better seen in John Milius’s 1973 Dillinger. Mystifyingly, Depp plays Dillinger as a kind of bemused introvert—hardly a gangster who could charm a courtroom. He flirts with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (a wonderful Cotillard) and banters with reporters at a lineup, but he often seems to slog toward destiny resigned to his own doom. His death at the Biograph—a sequence as stunning as you’d expect—has more aesthetic than dramatic impact. His status as a folk hero is conveyed succinctly (“Take me with you, mister,” says a mom who’s just sheltered him as he leaves); Mann seems more invested in staging a woodland shootout or depicting the way the press’s flashbulbs light up an airport sky.
For all the hoopla, Public Enemies turns out to be a surprisingly minimalist and underdramatized work, especially considering its source, a sweeping tome by Bryan Burrough. Loose with chronology as well as facts, the movie plops us into a more Mannic world of obscure intrigues. (If you don’t know who Alvin Karpis is, you won’t know much more going out.) Notwithstanding some speechifying by J. Edgar Hoover (an entertainingly self-righteous Crudup), the birth of the FBI is explored on a similarly micro scale, as when a botched raid prompts Melvin Purvis (a stone-faced Bale) to threaten to quit if he doesn’t get better men.
Like Dillinger, Mann and his jangly camera live for the moment. If Public Enemies doesn’t cut it as history or mythologizing, it succeeds staggeringly well as a series of set pieces. The movie opens with a jailbreak in Michigan City that establishes Dillinger’s sense of invincibility from the get-go, and his brushes with the law—including his infamous prison escape with a fake gun—serve as the chief narrative punctuation. (An ingenious scene finds Dillinger trapped in a theater after a newsreel exhorts patrons to seek him out.) The film’s emotional center has been handed to Billie, the one character who emerges with real clarity and warmth.
The atmosphere’s the thing, and while Mann’s ground-level approach will not be to every taste, he’s made an experimental gangster film that deserves to be taken on its own terms. The director may have sold out Dillinger, but he’s given his oeuvre a nervy, compelling addition.