Given its plural, Wellman-amplified title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) is a movie at war with itself. It’s an interesting war, though, and even if its first casualty is coherence, then something important is won, too. The main aesthetic antagonism here lies in a clash between the ultra-sharp, inherently-gritty HD camerawork , and Mann’s fondness for the painterly composition of the frame. Even when the objects and people on the screen are at their sharpest and the skies at their most overexposed, Mann is careful to throw in some cobalt blues or dark gold – his two colors of preference in Public Enemies.
This is the second John Dillinger movie I saw (the first one being the 1945 version by Max Nosseck), but it’s obvious that Mann is indebted to the gangster genre as a whole, rather than to any particular title. Surprisingly though, he doesn’t include many staples of the gangster pics – there’s not much humor going on, for example; no funny lugs as sidekicks, etc. What Mann does provide, though, is violence, longing and prescience of death – and these were always the cornerstones of screen crime.
As interesting and daring as Public Enemies is, I had problems with two things. First, some of the casting choices troubled me quite a bit. After watching the trailer, I was excited about seeing Marion Cotillard being freed from the heavy burden of crude make-up that made her Oscar turn in La Môme (2007) so stifling for me to watch. But it turned out I don’t buy her as a 1930s American girl, either. Something about her looks suggest an excessive depth, or rather a lack of fleeting shallowness that any gangster mole should have in her. Vulgarity is needed in such cases, and I don’t think Cotillard can be vulgar.
Also, Billy Crudup was a disappointment as J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t even want to mention how crass and homophobic the only hint of his sexual orientation here is (“Tell him he can call me J.E.!”), but Crudup does a caricature of an authority-starved square that I don’t think is true, or even enjoyable. I prefer Bob Hoskins in a much lesser movie, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995).
My second problem with the film is its meant-to-be-solemn indictment of FBI brutality, which has some fashionably abugharibish tone to it. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Abu Gharib got even half of a coverage it should have in contemporary American movies, but somehow the parallel Mann draws between Hoover’s eagerness to embrace torture and Mussollini’s taking of Ethiopia doesn’t strike me as particularly bright (Hoover even quotes from Mussollini in this film, something about “taking off the white gloves”).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m complaining, but I still think it’s a remarkable movie. It’s just that it made me crave for perfection: a giddy feeling that was first induced, and then not exactly fulfilled by Mr. Michael Mann.