Sunday, July 05, 2009

Public Enemies: A Night Out With The Grown-Ups

Since Michael Mann moved from television to the silver screen, he has made a few excellent films, one which I consider a knock-out classic and several unsatisfactory movies which are, nevertheless, fascinating to watch. Public Enemies rests securely in the last camp; I'm glad I saw it, even though I wanted it to be so much more.

Johnny Depp's portrait of John Dillinger is a careful study of the sorts of farmland gangsters that still exist. He exercises a casual charm and assumes, often rightly, that everyone else is jealous of what he's getting away with. He's clever enough to be king of the world for almost a year, but too thick to realize when his singular strategy has ceased to work.

His dame, played by Marion Cotillard, sees through him but falls hard anyway. His nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) has a steely determination to get the job done, but purses his lips whenever doubts assail him. Billy Crudup's embodiment of J. Edgar Hoover is the real stand-out performance in this film. The man lives to dictate. He clips out orders and expectations, and when a greater authority steps in his way, he suppresses a deep, bellowing rage and shifts hard into manipulation mode. The camera's focus on Crudup's performance is casual and sly, glancing in the corners to suggest volumes (including, quite naturally, Hoover's homosexuality) while rarely becoming explicit.

The screenplay suggests that Dillinger and Purvis are lone wolves who command a dodgy sort of pack loyalty, but find themselves almost completely out of step with the larger forces they serve. Certainly Dillinger faces a moment of unwanted clarity when he is told outright that he's become too big a risk for the mob to associate with. But Purvis's interactions with Hoover do not communicate the same personal audacity. The stage is set for Purvis to be royally screwed by his boss, but it never happens.

Mann's concluding acts are almost always the weakest link. He works so hard to think differently about genre plot strictures — one of PE's biggest pleasures is watching law enforcement work without the communications technology the genre currently takes for granted; when Command isn't barking updates and orders directly into your cochlea you have to think on your feet, and Mann does a pleasingly brutal job of illustrating the benefits and hazards of this approach.

If Mann can't quite manage the final stunt of catching the audience emotionally off-guard as the final credits roll, no matter — there are other pleasures to savor. Mann's use of digital cameras is nearly a tutorial in what the technology now contributes to the movies. The texture of skin and cloth is brought out to high effect, and his use of natural light sources has established its own sense of heightened drama — call it digital noir, maybe. And I don't think there's anyone currently making movies with as brilliantly convincing gunfights, which this movie generously dishes out like so much fries and coleslaw.

Finally, I have to say that one of the things I really, really enjoyed last night was the audience. The median age was well over 30, and those who were younger shut up once the first reel got going — which you had to, if you were going to catch any of the dialog. For just over two hours I felt like I was a grown-up, sitting with other grown-ups and watching a grown-up bit of entertainment. When that happens, I don't care what they're charging at the wicket, or if the movie didn't quite make the measure of One Of The Greats.

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