By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Stylish as Johnny Depp’s portrayal is in director Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” it appears the splendid thespian is a bit late to the party. Short of reinventing the antihero, his performance, like Dillinger himself, was doomed. Just as our idea of the hero changes, so does its counterculture variant. This bad boy is strictly old fedora.
That’s not to say Mr. Depp couldn’t have played Clyde to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie, or just about any other era’s rebel. He would have looked fine sitting atop Brando’s Triumph in “The Wild One” (1953). And dare say, he’d be a superb Duke Mantee to Leslie Howard’s Alan Squier in “The Petrified Forest” (1936). But alas, he’s not a seer.
Post 9/11 and the as yet undefined financial miasma that rolled into town in late 2008, the new mindset has not yet formed. Which makes it especially hard for a romantic dissenter to know what exactly to be against. Our optimistic election of President Obama might be a sign that we’ve tired of cynicism and the spin. Been there, done that.
Gangster stock further devaluates as the slick and the canny in the higher echelons of our economic workings increasingly seek to carve their own fiefdoms without regard for the commonweal. The more the gray between righteous and evil widens, the more we need a traditional hero.
Nose-thumbing nihilists become a decadence we simply can’t afford.
To Depp’s credit, he doesn’t humanize his title killer any more than necessary to tell the primarily true tale. But this unsheathes a double-edged sword. We all know about Dillinger…one of the Midwestern desperados who, for a time, stole the headlines from his ethnic, inner-city counterparts. Without a hook, the legend is now anticlimactic.
Put in perspective, John Dillinger originally captured imaginations set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. The fantasy was that he was lashing out at the system…robbing one for the Gipper, so to speak. However, transcendent as his smile may be, Mr. Depp struggles, albeit seamlessly, to evoke an analogous notion of revolt.
Given his unembellished resume, it’s tough to develop any feeling for the bank robber. Offering faint apology, he explains to his gal, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), that his mom died when he was three and his father beat him. The screenplay’s emphasis of his loyalty to fellow hoods is like informing that Hitler was kind to his German shepherds.
Doubtless, director Mann calculated the inherent problems of honestly telling the story without making it seem like History Channel redux. So he overcompensates by accenting the shoot-em-up angle. Whether via Tommy gun or BAR, bullets fly. The soon tiring rat-tat-tat makes you wonder if the hail of gunfire depicts the exact number of rounds fired.
To further heighten the sought after realism, the filmmaker (or, should he be called video-maker?) employs the Sony F23 digital system. While startlingly clear in a “You Are There” sort of way, the resultant, faux documentary look is a case of the gimmick shooting itself in the foot. The self-conscious hyperbole comes off gratuitous.
Call the plotline nouvelle factual. There are few value judgments, though the undertone is decidedly pragmatic. It’s survival of the fittest with an acerbic bent. A young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is ambitiously launching his career. G-Man Melvin Purvis, smartly portrayed by Christian Bale, is an important key to the demagogue’s power quest.
Interestingly though, while Dillinger and Purvis are depicted as opposite sides of the same coin, it’s not in the contemporary sense of that sarcasm. Depp’s two-dimensional Dillinger is bad, purportedly a product of his environment, but really because he has the ruthless killer gene. Purvis, on the other hand, is more enigma than white knight.
He follows instructions and is dead serious, staunchly believing he’ll prevail because he employs the latest crime fighting techniques. But he preaches not, and in Mr. Bale’s eyes we try to detect whether the lawman is as convinced of his moral imperative as he is of his duty. Meanwhile, history and the times are also having their say.
Just as Wells Fargo and other moneyed interests could no longer abide the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid element robbing trains in the previous century, Dillinger and his ilk don’t figure in the new commerce’s workings. The tribute they shell out pales in comparison to what the Mafia routinely pays to be a partner in the economic system.
But Depp’s Dillinger scorns the corporate mobster that Frank Nitti extols whilst showing off his numbers racket boiler room. Probably fatalistic, even if bragging to Billie that he’ll die an old man in her arms, he knows he’s a dinosaur. But this isn’t enough to make us care, which is precisely why filmgoers shouldn’t chum up to “Public Enemies.”
“Public Enemies,” rated R, is a Universal Studios release directed by Michael Mann and stars Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard. Running time: 140 minutes