' ' Cinema Romantico: Public Enemies

Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Enemies

It seems the biopic is Michael Mann's kryptonite. "Ali" disappointed me and "Public Enemies" disappointed me even more if only because it seemed to be squarely in Mann's wheelhouse. He's the master of the crime saga and "Public Enemies" charts the story of one of America's most notorious criminals, bank robber John Dillinger, busting out of an Indiana prison, going on a spree, meeting a lovely lady, and ultimately getting gunned down outside the Biograph Theater on the streets of Chicago. I have struggled in the 48 hours since I saw it to determine the reason of Mann's failure.

Though, rest assured, it's not a complete failure. Far, far from it. The movie certainly looks good, beautiful photography and costume and set design and the whole thing. The acting is decent. Depp is solid as Dillinger, though not overwhelming, with the most expressive lisp of hair in cinematic history. Marion Cotillard is pretty good as Bille Frechette, a coatcheck girl who Dillinger sees from across the room and decides almost at once needs to be his "girl", and Christian Bale is serviceable as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who hunted down Dillinger, and Billy Crudup is really pretty good as infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. (I truly hoped this role would get Crudup that much deserved first Oscar nod but the role isn't showy nor prominent enough to make it happen. Alas.) No one - and I mean no one - makes machine gun fire as poetic as Michael Mann. And there are even a few sporadic moments of epic brilliance.

A brief sequence that involves a red light and a green light and a horrifying moment of life and death with Dillinger clinging to an accomplice being dragged outside of a car post prison break and, most particularly, the passage near the end in and around the Biograph Theater. The music, the way it contrasts certain scenes showing in the movie with Depp watching with a smile, the way it draws out the final moments, it's all worth the price of admission even if you have to wait quite awhile to see it.

But what of the rest? It's so...it's so.....it's so.......uninvolving. No immediacy. We're not there. Michael Mann always puts us there. Why wasn't I there? Why??? I cannot fathom how the man who once took the most simple shot imaginable of Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx and Naomie Harris just standing in the middle of a dance club and rendering it as dramatic as Springsteen's moans at the start of "Something in the Night" was unable to bring the same sort of drama to the story of John Dillinger.

Purvis, for one, is not a very interesting counterpoint to Dillinger. Mann almost completely dispenses with backstory but then that's always his been his M.O. Typically he develops character along with the story in a manner far more skillful than most but nothing ever develops with Purvis. He remains dogged but he is detached.

Dillinger's dialogue, and Bille's to some degree too, is peppered with platitudes. A few of those are fine but this many? Certainly Dillinger was a showman in a sense and so this is partly the movie presenting that side of him, yet he was also cold, calculating, and that part feels less authentic when he's spouting off lines destined for Barlett's.

Mostly, I suppose, it falls victim to that which plagues so many biopics, the History Channel Syndrome. Certain events need to be told and there are lot of those events and so the movie speeds us along from event to event and nothing ever feels very....intimate.

That's what it is. Michael Mann movies are intimate. The canvas is normally big, sure, but these sprawling tales of his are always, always told with such intimacy. He finds the intimate moments of his stories and then lingers. Yeah, that's it, too. He lingers. He lingers more than most. That's what I love about his movies. Most filmmakers are in such a damn hurry but Michael Mann finds things no one else does and sees them in ways no one else can and his movies never go into overdrive even though so much is consistently at stake. When "Public Enemies" settles down and finds something that truly catches its filmmaker's fancy it marvels but when it just yearns to say Dillinger did this and then Dillinger did that it bores.

"Ali" felt rushed. "Public Enemies" felt rushed. Michael Mann should never ever be in a rush.

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