Michael Mann has been playing at cops and robbers for longer than I have been alive. Once reviled for bringing that new-fangled “music video” style to television drama in Miami Vice, he has since gone on to demonstrate an appreciation for action, style and technology, which has overshadowed both Miami Vice and the superior Crime Story. No longer a “vapid proto-fascist”, he has shown himself to be an indie filmmaker in spirit, if not in brand.
The projects that Michael Mann has gotten his hands on have been changing. While connecting an artist’s personal feelings with stories they present to the world is a dubious exercise, it doesn’t take a finely focused critical eye to see an arc stretching from Starsky and Hutch to Public Enemies. For now, without exhaustive research, I would say Heat would be the apogee of this arc. In this particular film, the motives of cop and criminal are considered in balance and sympathetic parallel. While Heat has its weaknesses, this film was the boldest step Mann took over the thin blue line.
How is this important? These details are important because it helps illustrate why Public Enemies is a moment in cinema which may go unobserved by many, but lauded by a few. The movie is brilliant in many ways. Brilliant because it is thick with a subtext which skewers the clichés of law enforcement in a way which was unimaginable twenty years ago.
Of course, John Dillinger was a violent criminal who may or may not have been a Robin Hood, but in this film, it is clear that the myth of Dillinger is as timely now as ever. A delerioursly paranoid circumstance, a victim of corruption on all sides and also incorruptibly romantic, Depp’s Dillinger blurs the line between hero and anti-hero so far that I didn’t feel any guilt for cheering him on by the end of the film. Dillinger is the anti-authoritarian hero, and one can feel the glee that both Mann and Depp must have felt slyly celebrating the exploits of a pre-war bank robber. (Especially as the target of a Mussolini quoting J Edgar Hoover)
I don’t think it is any accident that this film also demonstrates just how far “shot on video” has come along. While there are moments where the technical limits of video, even high definition video, are evident; the striking difference augments the violence. Much like the stuttering frames of Saving Private Ryan, the strange clarity heightens the experience rather than distancing. My date for the evening asked me why it looked “like live TV”. Much like Dillinger with his Thompson submachine guns and BAR rifles, Mann has taken the technology of the day and made it serve his own anarchic ends.
For all its genius, the film stumbles in the script department. There are a few too many cops and robbers clichés that should have been avoided. I suppose some viewers cheer whenever a character says they “have a bad feeling” about a job, or when the prison guards fall for the (not so) clever ruse like dolts, and there was no reason in the world we needed to see Johnny Depp swinging dual pistols around like a mid-90’s HK action hero. Depp is fun to watch, and brings plenty of intensity to the role, but the character as written gets pretty watery once you try to get past the iconic rebellion. There is probably about a script page worth of development spent on his human motivations, rather than the mythic ones.
Still, I can overlook all that. I was so busy cheering on the “blackbird” (Dillinger) of this film that I wonder if time spent developing mortal failings wouldn’t have just short-circuited the cumulative effect. Some characters leave space for the willing viewer to inhabit, while others step off the screen to inhabit the viewer. Depp’s Dillinger is the former.
They say you can judge a society by its’ prisons. Maybe in some movie world, you can judge it by the people who stay out of prisons. Mann and Dillinger’s America was a landscape of outlaws whose powers kept them out of the reach of justice, but whose reach could never fully keep Dillinger’s own individual, causeless rebellion, under total control. Like the times and the nation that created him, the mythic Dillinger is a dark reminder that liberty often means freedom from power, and not the freedom to wield power.