Public Enemies

Now technically I’ve already reviewed Public Enemies – check out the latest edition of Cinerama to hear myself and Ian discussing the movie at some length – but after reading a whole sheaf of the reviews that have appeared over the weekend, I found I still had that a good deal more to say about it. Although there will be a little overlap with the Cinerama review, in the main I’d like to address some of the issues people out here are having with this film.

Now first off, I was very impressed with Michael Mann’s latest opus and thought he delivered a marvellously intelligent and engaging slice of period gangster action. However Public Enemies seems to be getting a lot of mixed notices, and while I accept and welcome diverse reactions to a film, I can’t help feeling a lot of the more negative reviews are somewhat wrong headed in their appraisal of this movie.

By far the most common problem is the endless comparisons to Mann’s earlier film, Heat, and the quintessential example is Mark Kermode's review which can be viewed here. And although superficially there are similarities between the two movies, they are very different animals. What many reviewers don’t seem to grasp is that Public Enemies is adapted from Bryan Burrough’s non-fiction book of the same name. And indeed, many of the more negative reviews don’t acknowledge the film’s literary origins.

Public Enemies, the book, details the history of the 1930s American crime wave in great depth, unravelling the real stories of not only John Dillinger, but The Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson and the formation of the FBI. It is a truly epic work of crime history, giving the reader virtually a day by day account of the activities of the both the criminals and the law enforcement agencies tasked to hunting them.

Needless to say a book of such massive scope could never be compressed into even an epic length movie, and strictly speaking Public Enemies the movie is better described as ‘drawn from’ than “adapted from”. Although the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson appear in the film, Mann focuses on John Dillinger, perhaps the most mythic and iconic figure in the book. But even the Dillinger material in the book would stretch far beyond the usual movie running time if brought faithfully to the screen; hence Public Enemies slims down the detail to the pivotal scenes of his criminal career.

And this is the key point I feel some reviewers are missing – this is not a two-handed psychological crime drama like Heat. If anything, it’s actually a biopic and the main thrust of the film is to accurately recreate and portray the events of Dillinger’s life. Mann isn’t interested in spinning a yarn based upon some imagined Dillinger – he’s trying to create a snapshot of the times.

And this sense of historical accuracy permeates the film. Instead of the usual clichés – expository voice-overs, montages, newsreel inserts or spinning headlines – he goes for dramatic recreation presenting the events without editorial or narrative comment. Here is what happened, says Mann, and the viewer must judge for themselves.

Throughout his career as a director, Mann has often displayed an almost pathological disdain for exposition. He firmly believes in the credo ‘show, not tell’ often to the frustration of viewers. For example, the common reaction to both his first film, The Keep and one of his latest, Miami Vice is “what the fresh hell was supposed to be going in that flick?”.

And true to form, in Public Enemies, Mann avoids scenes where characters deliver info dumps on the history of the time. And although I would have liked a little more detail about the time and period the film is set in, I do think he delivered enough for the narrative work. The necessary historical detail is there but it isn’t overstated – Mann takes what is a more and more infrequent step these days and assumes a degree of intelligence on the part of the audience.

Let’s be clear on the type of history he is presenting here – he’s showing us a street level view of events, not a World At War impersonal overview. His method of shooting reflects this; his camera work presents Dillinger’s world from the perspective of a bystander. The cinematography gives us a breathtaking view over the shoulder of the characters. Public Enemies is history as reportage rather than thesis.

Some have complained that Mann’s decision to shoot in HD digital with hand held cameras is somewhat jarring for the period. Now the grammar of period pieces is usually to be stately and often to pull back to let the audiences see and the money that was spent on creating the sets and the detail of the period costumes. And this works extreme well for Merchant-Ivory films and their ilk. But for Public Enemies, where Mann is attempting to transport the viewer onto the doorstep of a bank robbery, the more kinetic hand held approach is more appropriate to convey the sense of history as it happens. The stately approach to period cinema is born of consciously looking back into the past, whereas Mann’s direction shows the 1930s as the characters saw it – modern and dynamic. It’s not history as something that happened years ago, this is history as it unfolded, blow by blow.

And this sense of historical reportage doesn’t require the cast to pontificate and perform rhetorical acrobatics, but they do need to portray their characters through their actions and reactions. Bow here at Hypnogoria Towers, we’re big fans of what we term ‘face acting’ and are always when an actor can convey the internal workings of their character through expressions and body language. Unfortunately we seem to be in something of minority, with the general yardstick of thespian ability being the ability to merely deliver the lines well. But is it very pleasing to see this physical kind of action in a film like Public Enemies.

In keeping with the eye witness approach to the period, the script avoids giving the characters reams of lines detailing their thoughts and feelings and instead concentrates more on what hey are doing. And Mann makes great use of close ups to capture this. History is often a matter of interpretation, and therefore Mann is not seeking to tell us how Purvis, Dillinger and Freshette are feeling or thinking; instead he shows us their lives and gives the audience the space to make their judgements on their interior lives. To concentrate on the line count is the miss the point of both Mann’s approach and the subtleties of the performances.

Now viewers thinking that this is supposed to be a 1930s Heat have come away carping that we don’t get inside the character’s heads, their interactions are underwritten and the two males leads under perform. But there is a simple reason why this does not happen - THIS IS NOT A GODDAMN PREQUEL TO HEAT. This is a historical drama folks, and we don’t get huge brooding speeches from the leads detailing their philosophies of crime because IT SIMPLY DIDN’T HAPPEN THAT WAY. The dialogue sticks closely to how the people spoke and what has been historically reported they said, even in the more fictional scenes. And anyone familiar with Mann’s work should really have expected this approach from him in a film based on a historical work, given his famous attention to details and technicalities.

Apologies for the shouting, but there seems to be this widespread belief firmly entrenched in the minds of many that every Michael Mann film is a variant of on the same cops’n’robbers are the flip sides of the same coin plot. While it’s true it is a running motif in many of his films, when did it become mandatory for him to produce movies only on this theme? Heat is seems has become a huge albatross around both his neck and this movie’s.

It’s something of an irony however to recall initial reactions to Heat, which drew similarly mixed reviews. Contrary to its gold-plated critical reputation today, when Heat was first release there was a good deal of carping from viewers who had come to the movie expecting something different. The pre-release buzz for Heat made a big deal of the fact that this film would deliver PACINO! And DE NIRO! TOGETHER AT LAST! in the biggest clash of climatic titans since King King Vs Godzilla. And as it was they only crossed paths once in a single scene, leaving a lot of viewers feeling somewhat deflated. And I can’t help feeling that the same sort of lazy journalism that’s pushing the ‘Public Enemies is Heat in the dirty ‘30s’ line is setting up the same kind of disappointment. And more ironic still, there were similar complaints about pacing and accusations of style over substance...

However hopefully, as was the case with Heat, in time cinema lovers will come to judge Public Enemies on it own terms, rather than what they thought it should be. And like Heat, Public Enemies is a film that will repay repeated viewings. Both those who initially have been left a little underwhelmed and those who love it already will find that watching it again will reveal its strengths, subtleties and performances in greater detail.

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JIM MOON, 8th July 2009