Film Reviews

PUBLIC ENEMIES

By • Jul 3rd, 2009 •

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Michael Mann delivers, as does Depp and Bale. Once again a small character role, Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover, mesmerizes. As usual, Mann shortchanges female roles. Marion Cotillard is a dull temptress.

Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger is an American icon and Johnny Depp is always fascinating to watch, especially when he is playing real people (SECRET WINDOW, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, BLOW, and the best, DONNIE BRASCO). With a strong, masculine director, Depp plays Dillinger with an easy, ruthless charm.

But Dillinger’s sudden obsession with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) stops the movie cold. Obviously, Cotillard needs personal nurturing and director Michael Mann is not known for his deft handling of female roles. (HEAT did have Ashley Judd, but she never plays the wilted flower. She would play Mother Teresa as a bitch.) Since Dillinger’s fall is based on his obsession for Billie (and prostitutes), you want to understand why he risked his hard-fought escapes and freedom by going back to Chicago to see her.

Craftsman Mann’s canvas is large and opulent. When we meet up with Dillinger he has been arrested after being free for a few weeks after a nine-year prison term. So he’s been institutionalized and can’t handle the outside world. Not the rumored ladies man (or possessed with the larger-than-life penis), he has many devoted friends who help him escape over and over again. He makes a mockery of the Indiana State Penitentiary.

Its 1933 and the fact that Dillinger and his gang never take people’s money, only the bank’s money, make him a working-class hero.

The movie fires up when the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), becomes a laughingstock for the failure of his agents to apprehend Dillinger. Hoover elevates agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head the John Dillinger team. Purvis has gained Hoover’s attention by killing Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum).

Since Dillinger is pulling bank jobs with aplomb with Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Purvis has no choice but to follow Hoover’s directive to haul in and harass every friend and family member of Dillinger and his key men.

The FBI’s pursuit of Dillinger affects his protected status inside Chicago’s criminal underworld. The mob’s Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) is feeling the pressure from the FBI. His gambling operation is far more profitable than laundering money from Dillinger’s bank robberies. Nitti doesn’t want Dillinger’s business.

While Dillinger looks for the last big score, he is lovesick and mopey over Billie. So, after heroic escapes and hideouts, he goes back to Chicago to see Billie. He knows she is being watched but he doesn’t care. So, while hiding out with prostitutes, he finds himself set up and surrounded by G-Men while leaving a movie theater.

Mann generously gives Giovanni Ribisi the opportunity to leave silly roles behind and he delivers. Mann has given Ribisi a career. Other standouts are Branka Katic (from BIG LOVE) and Lili Taylor. Christian Bale is always good.

But it is Billy Crudup who steals PUBLIC ENEMIES with his tempered, barely-able-to- contain-his-fury, personification of Hoover. And I loved seeing Hoover’s constant companion finally given his due.

After his death, it was reported that Dillinger had deliberately taunted J. Edgar Hoover by making collect phone calls to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as sending him Christmas cards. The acts caused Hoover to become irrationally obsessed with apprehending Dillinger, to the exclusion of all other duties. At one time, Hoover had redirected a third of the entire budget of the FBI in 1934 to hunting down Dillinger. After Dillinger was gunned down, Hoover maintained a macabre private museum of Dillinger artifacts including the gun, hat, pocket change and eyeglasses that were found on the body that night in Chicago.

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