Public Enemies 09/07/23 2:51
A big part of that strategy, and a controversial one, is Mann's use of digital video instead of regular film. One expects a period gangster film to have a polished classic look, but instead the use of video gives the picture a kind of rough immediacy, as if somebody had traveled back in time with a camcorder and just happened to be in the right places. In my opinion it works most of the time, removing the dramatic distance that we usually erect in front of an historical period, and especially combined with the amazingly detailed production design—the clothes, the cars, even the hair and the faces seem utterly authentic, and Mann soaks up the scenes with the camera while moving through them at breakneck speed.
Mythologizing is inevitable when it comes to gangsters, and here Dillinger is seen as the last example of individual rebellion before crime became organized crime. Johnny Depp has sometimes wasted his talents with junk roles, but here he's got the walk, the expressions, everything right. This contrasts with his pursuer, straight-arrow FBI man Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale. Purvis does represent a certain decency, but his boss J. Edgar Hoover, in an amusing turn by Billy Crudup, exemplifies the brutal and self-serving mendacity of the law.
Mann plays fast-and-loose with some of the history, although the main outlines are here, including Dillinger's arrest at Tucson's Congress Hotel and his later escape from an Indiana jail. We follow him and his partners, including Red Hamilton, Homer Van Meter, and Baby Face Nelson, as they rob banks and create general mayhem. The shooting scenes feature some of the best sound design and editing I've encountered.
Despite a basic callousness, Dillinger is given some fatal qualities of loyalty and passion, particularly in his attachment to Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard, a hat-check girl that he falls for. Cotillard fills out this rather sketchy role with marvelous skill.
There's a sadness to Public Enemies, a sense of the common man's powerlessness in the new America, which found its ideal in the myth of the outlaw. Michael Mann specializes in outlaws and outsiders, and this film is one of his best.