Saturday, August 15, 2009
Every great director has at least one truly bad film in him, and Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s. It is not just a failure, but one of those movies in which the gap between its quality and its maker’s talent is so immense as to be nearly inexplicable. To be fair, it is possible that my expectations for Public Enemies, which chronicles the 1933 FBI manhunt for legendary Midwest bank robber John Dillinger, were unfairly high. But from the man who made Manhunter, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and the masterpiece Heat, a film this empty, dull, lifeless, and—most shocking of all—crudely made cannot be anything other than a major disappointment. This may not be fair, but it is a fact. We expect bad films from the likes of Brett Ratner. We expect great ones from Michael Mann. Such is the price of genius, and in Public Enemies, Mann pays it.
In all fairness, however, it must be admitted that Public Enemies is not just Mann’s failure. It is also another in a long line of equally inexplicable failures to successfully translate the myth of John Dillinger and his eventual demise to the screen. I use the term inexplicable because if the Dillinger legend is anything, it is unquestionably a great story. It has love, violence, friendship, irony, and death. It has a charismatic antihero and, in the person of straitlaced FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who led the manhunt, the stoic nemesis who eventually takes him down. It is a quintessentially American story featuring two classic American archetypes—the free-spirited outlaw and the upstanding sheriff—locked in a duel to the death in a world not unlike that of the Western but much more recognizably ours. In other words, it is a story that seems tailor-made for the movies. And yet, Hollywood has proven consistently incapable of doing it justice.
This is not for lack of trying. Almost from the moment he died in a hail of police bullets outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Dillinger has been an object of Hollywood’s affections. Over half a dozen films have been made about him, with John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), produced by legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman and starring the much-underrated Warren Oates, probably being the best of them, but none have even approached the heights of the great gangster films like The Godfather (1972) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Most of them have been, at best, forgettable. It seems that something about Dillinger and his tale eludes the powers of cinema, and the best retellings of it have been in books like John Toland’s fascinating if sometimes inaccurate The Dillinger Days (1963).
The reason for this is probably Dillinger himself. Profoundly evil and, by all accounts, profoundly attractive, he is too complicated, schizophrenic, and disturbing a character for any mainstream film to accurately capture. A violent, charming sociopath, Dillinger was a rapist at thirteen, a convict before he reached twenty, and by the time he was finally cornered and killed by the FBI, a murderer many times over who counted several police officers among his victims. If anything distinguished him from his fellow thugs, it was his unnerving self-awareness, coupled with what seemed to be an instinctive understanding of the role that mass media was coming to play in American life. Decades before Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, Dillinger was the first American criminal who succeeded in turning himself into a cultural icon. Accordingly, he cultivated a Clark Gable-style mustache, went out of his way to charm the press, never missed a chance for a photo opportunity— especially if it made the authorities look foolish—and became a specialist in such baroque gestures as vaulting gracefully over bank counters and refusing to steal money from poor farmers. He understood, probably because he shared it, that particularly American sympathy for outlaws, especially when their efforts are directed at the vast unknowable systems that seem to govern so much of modern American life. And like most sociopaths, he had a keen sense of what people find attractive, and quickly learned how to exploit it to his advantage.
The real skeleton key to the Dillinger legend, however, is probably the fact that while his chosen profession was somewhat unorthodox, he was very, very good at it. Americans have never much sympathized with Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune lies a crime. They love a success story, no matter how tawdry the details (witness the recent sickening genuflection before the memory of the odious Michael Jackson), and Dillinger was unquestionably a success, robbing banks with seeming impunity, eluding the best efforts of law enforcement for months, and escaping from jails advertised as impregnable. For a brief moment, he was rich, good-looking, and famous, which is usually all Americans need to at least grudgingly admire someone. In this sense, he anticipated modern American icons like Simpson and Jackson, whose transgressions, however horrendous, are endlessly forgiven in the name of their celebrity.
The Dillinger of Public Enemies is both much more likable and far less interesting than the original. Played by perennial teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, he is both dull and a pretty nice guy, of which Dillinger was most certainly neither. Depp channels none of the sociopathic joie de vivre which so endeared the outlaw to a bruised and cynical American public. Instead, he remakes the outlaw as a sort of emasculated Byronic hero. Sensitive, sentimental, damaged, and driven, this Dillinger rarely speaks above a monotone, and seems more like a shuffling, drug-addled rock star than a gangster. All of the outlaw’s most legendary moments—jumping over the bank counters, letting the farmer keep his money, joking with the press, having his picture taken with his arm on the shoulder of his prosecutor—are portrayed in the film, but Depp’s performance is so woefully blank and uninflected that they pass by with barely any impact. While Mann has often used understated, affectless performances to his advantage (witness Robert DeNiro’s tour de force of underacting in Heat), in this case it serves only to empty Dillinger of what made him interesting in the first place.
Christian Bale’s vacant portrayal of Dillinger’s pursuer Melvin Purvis is equally woeful. Purvis has generally been portrayed by historians as either a stalwart lawman or a bumbling incompetent, and Mann tries to provide us with a little of both, resulting in a character who is both totally incoherent and just as uninteresting as his quarry. As with Mann’s portrayal of Dillinger, the reality was far more compelling and far more disturbing: Purvis was a puritanistic southerner who got the credit for killing Dillinger, though historians now believe there is a strong chance he never fired a shot (Mann’s version of events implies that this was in fact the case, though the climactic scene is so bizarrely edited that it is almost impossible to tell who is firing at who). Some thirty years later, the ex-lawman committed suicide, supposedly using the same gun with which he may or may not have shot Dillinger. The conflicting forces that must have been at work in the psyche of such a man ought to make for great drama, perhaps even great tragedy, but Mann more or less ignores them, and by the end of the movie one is simply left wondering what Purvis is doing in the film in the first place.
The only truly persuasive performance in the film belongs to French actress Marion Cotillard, who plays the ostensible love of Dillinger’s life, Billie Frechette. Cotillard depicts her as an innocent in love, which is probably inaccurate (before she hooked up with Dillinger, Frechette had already married and left another convicted criminal), but nonetheless touching, and at certain points she displays a ferocious carnality sadly lacking in the portrayal of Dillinger himself. She alone seems to be alive in the way legend demands. Billy Crudup, who plays J. Edgar Hoover, is also effective, though his character rarely rises above the shallow caricature which has become the standard Hollywood portrayal of the late FBI director. Nonetheless, there is an eccentric ruthlessness to Crudup’s Hoover that locks him immediately into the mind of the viewer, which cannot be said for the ciphers portrayed by Depp and Bale.
The acting, however, is the least of the film’s problems. Most troubling of all, especially for those familiar with Mann’s earlier work, is the cinematography, which must be one of the most wrongheaded stylistic decisions in cinema history. Put simply, Public Enemies is the ugliest big budget movie ever made. Mann shot the film on high definition video, and while films like the last two Star Wars prequels and Superman Returns have managed to get a reasonably film-like look out of digital cameras, Mann seems to have opted for a more primitive version of the technology, perhaps in imitation of the execrable Lars Von Trier’s equally execrable Dogma movement. The result simply bears out Roman Polanski’s opinion that Dogma films look like the cameraman is masturbating while stricken with Parkinson’s disease. The images have no depth, movement tends to blur in confusing and disorientating ways, even the night scenes feel overlit, and there are endless shaky-cam shots, every one of which ought to have been filmed on a dolly track. The final effect is to induce nausea in the viewer, and total incomprehension as to why Mann would lavish such expense on costumes, production design, and period detail only to photograph them as if he were making a 1970s no-budget BBC drama.
This becomes even more baffling when one considers Mann’s previous work. A notorious perfectionist with a fetish for architectural compositions and modernist styles, the crowning glory of most of its films is their visual beauty, which together with his use of ambient music draws the viewer into that vicarious fugue state which always constitutes cinema at its best. The opening shot of Heat, for example, features an LA commuter train slowly approaching the camera as it pulls into an enormous modernist train station, the train’s gleaming exterior echoing the architecture surrounding it, so they both appear to become part of the same metallic topography. Throughout the shot, a single ominous note plays on the soundtrack. The viewer has no idea where the film is set or what is happening at this point, but by the time Robert DeNiro steps off the train Mann has us in his pocket. We are all asking ourselves: Who is this man? Why are we watching him? What is about to happen? This is pure filmmaking, holding the viewer spellbound with nothing more than cinema’s own wordless, hieroglyphic language.
The worst sin of Public Enemies, however, is that it not only fails as cinema but, in making itself unwatchably ugly, actually seems to be at war with it. Whatever his motivations might be—and I suspect Hollywood’s fetish for digital technology is one of them—Mann appears to have been stricken with a violent hatred of his own medium. This may eventually lead to something of value, but if Mann continues in this vein, there is a strong chance that we will have to evaluate his career as that of wayward master whose ultimate contribution was, sadly, to the degradation of cinema itself.
Posted by Edward Hugh at 10:34 AM