There are a number of ways to classify Michael Mann’s — or Johnny Depp’s — Public Enemies, the most obvious of which is as the latest in that classic American genre, the Gangster Film. But this paean to the Depression-era bank robber and murderer, John Dillinger, lacks one thing that, I think, is indispensable to a good Gangster Film, which is a moral backdrop. Mr Depp, after having invented the cool pirate, is now hard at work trying to do the same for the cool gangster — the gangster, that is, as rock-star — in a cinematic and cultural environment well-prepared for him by the romantic and balletic but amoral violence of Quentin Tarantino, decades worth of denigration of civil authority going back to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the pseudo-profundities of The Dark Knight (2008), insisting on the moral equivalence of law-enforcers and law-breakers. Heath Ledger’s Joker in the last named picture is the real prototype of Mr Depp’s John Dillinger, not the historical character of that name. But Public Enemies goes even further than The Dark Knight in glamorizing evil.
(Reviewed July 6, 2009)
At the center of its portrayal of Dillinger as romantic paladin is his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and the course of their true love runs smooth but for the interference of the corrupt and cartoonish cops and G-men whose presence in the film is designed to make the gangsters look like romantic rebels rather than the thieves and murderers they are. The moral standing of the law and its agents is virtually non-existent here. Yet without any recognition that the gangster is a sort of modern-day war-lord whose very existence represents a threat to civil society — and that civil society is supremely worth preserving — he ceases to be a gangster of the sort which might be recognizable as inhabiting either the real world or that of classic cinema. Reality, I need scarcely add, used to be a valued if often scarce commodity in Hollywood but is now no more prized there than it is by the vast audience of The Pirates of the Carribean franchise. As a gangster to be classed with rock stars or Vanity Fair underwear models, this John Dillinger is an embodiment of "cool" for a society and a culture which values nothing but cool.
It hasn’t been that long since things were different. To my eye, at least, the original Godfather films (1972,1974), Goodfellas (1990) and even The Sopranos (1999-2007), all still have that vital moral backdrop, albeit in a much more subtle form than we find it in The Public Enemy of 1931, the movie that made James Cagney a star. Today’s Public Enemies does not have it. In fact, it’s worse than that. Today, the superficial similarity of the title imperfectly masks an ironic contemptuousness towards civil society which puts the movie entirely on the side of the supposed public enemies from the scene of the opening jail-break onwards. "I stick with my pals and my pals stick with me," says jaunty John/Johnny — which is a nice summing up of the gangster’s sense of honor that is always so threatening to the common weal. That, of course, we don’t see, just as we don’t see — because Mr Mann is careful to make sure we don’t — our gangster hero actually killing anybody personally.
A poor sort of Gangster Film, then, Public Enemies is perhaps better seen as belonging to the genre that Mark Greif, writing in The London Review of Books about the AMC hit drama, "Mad Men," calls "Now We Know Better."
We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ — ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave.
I think there’s more to "Mad Men" than Mr Greif allows, but this kind of heavy-handedly ironic time-snobbery is, indeed, one of the show’s more unattractive features. Mr Mann’s version of it in Public Enemies is even more crude, and its sole purpose there is to provide a kind of checklist of America’s sins for the kind of Michelle Obama-style liberalism that sees nothing of which to be proud in American history prior to 2008.
Thus at one point when our hero gets into a car with Billie, the radio is tuned to a broadcast by Lowell Thomas, who is in the process of claiming that a United Mineworkers’ strike in West Virginia is "red influenced." Put a check in the box marked "McCarthyism." At another point, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) clumsily remarks: "As they say in Italy these days, it’s time to take off the white gloves" — and so a check goes in the box marked "crypto-fascism." And let’s not ignore G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) whose refusal to allow a wounded gangster medical attention until he gives up the gang’s hiding place (Little Bohemia in Wisconsin, since you ask) as a prototype of the Bush administration’s use of "torture." Poor, delicate-looking Billie also gets a sort of water-boarding from a sadistic cop but won’t tell the "dumb flat-foot" anything.
The very presence of J. Edgar Hoover must now raise a titter, I suppose, in young audiences who know nothing about him except that he kept files on prominent people and that he was a cross-dresser. Mr Mann commendably refrains from putting the head G-man in a dress, but only because he doesn’t have to in the furtherance of his portrayal of him as a publicity hound whose crime-fighting was nothing but a cynical (and successful) attempt to manipulate a more credulous media than today’s (and there’s another box for us to check). Collusion between government at all levels and organized crime in the person of Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) — in the murder of Dillinger as in other matters — rounds out the film’s portrait of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave in the 1930s for an audience mostly ill-equipped to know any better or to care very much if they did.
The murdered police and G-men also elude our sympathy because they are two-dimensional characters at best. They are arrogant, prejudiced, class-conscious — Mr Bale’s Melvin Purvis has to break the news to J. Edgar that "our type cannot get the job done" — and up-tight. Uncool, in short. Only Dillinger, Billie and one or two of his gang are authentic human beings, and if they need to rob a bank or two in pursuit of that authenticity, well, why not? The idea that it’s "the bank’s money" and not that of the bank’s depositors is also something the youth of today are only too likely to believe. Mr Bale’s Purvis, it’s true, borders on being an authentic character and is apparently a serious crime-fighter, unlike his boss, "Mr Hoover." But the movie goes out of its way to make Melvin the same kind of lone ranger that Dillinger himself is, the Batman to his Joker, and no representative of community values or standards of morality.
Without anything recognizable as such a standard, or any of the ordinary people who would have upheld it at the time, the movie never even begins to escape from the Fantasy-land in which most of today’s movies are set. Again and again, both in the movie itself and in the extensive press-coverage that the movie has generated — including the writings of those who, like Frank Rich, seek to mine it for little moralizing nuggets of their own — it is stressed that the common folk of the Depression era idolized Dillinger as a populist hero, striking a blow against rich people and capitalists on behalf of the oppressed. I don’t believe it. What few bits of evidence are ever cited in support of this proposition seem to me to be remarkably flimsy. People have always liked reading about sensational crimes, but that doesn’t mean that they admire the criminals. For that, you need either a highly developed political consciousness or the kind of brain-dead glamour-worship so characteristic of today’s movie industry. I leave it to you to decide which of the two is more responsible for glorifying the bank-robbers and murderers in this movie.