The best moments in Michael Mann’s latest film, PUBLIC ENEMIES, based on legendary criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), come around the last act: Dillinger, under disguise, is inspired while watching himself as the great criminal that he is on a number of photos in a Police Department, and then in the theater watching MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, a film with a resonance to Dillinger’s mode of life. It is a wonderful outside perspective, almost as if the character has stepped out of the frames. In a variety of ways, it is emblematical of Mann’s films: characters whose macho lives are idealizations made into realization; a microcosm for a filmmaker whose digital shooting is all about simulation over illustration. Dillinger, as the film as a whole, are not groundbreaking archivements for Mann, but still work as symbols on his career. That cinema is an avenue not just to see dreams, but that under the right properties, also live them.
The relationship between Mann’s filmmaking and the emotionality of his characters seem to be similar under a single theme: they all strive for immediacy. They’re about the meaning of experience, and the relish of it in real-time. Mann never advocates that Dillinger’s style of life as righteous – just as he never advocated that Vincent (Tom Cruise) was righteous in his speech to Max (Jamie Foxx) in COLLATERAL – since the result of such philosophy is eventually death. But he does glorifies his character as an event, and an emblematic one about the motif of self-importance that Mann’s people usually desire and the escapism they present: not only is he great in his escapes from the law, but he himself is an escapist road that the people around him want for their lives, and that cinema can work as a path to archive such desire.
Even if we’re not a bunch of gangsters, in Mann’s filmmaking and photography the combination of imagination and realness form an entity that blurs the line between the deliberate and random, something that is as beautiful as purposeful art and as exciting as an uncontrolled life. Bullets are heard as true as they are (an observation that had to be made in the middle of the film by a friend of me), and images are seen as factual as they might be visualized by less constructed, mainstream-movie capturing. Like the characters who relish the present, who dimiss the future and make a dream into a realism, Mann’s style is all about the instantaneous experience and the realistic. It is both provocative and appropriate thematically.
PUBLIC ENEMIES falls short as “important” storytelling that is about any particular idea that might be of great consequence, like THE INSIDER may have been. But that’s nothing to always aspire. The film directly wants us and successfully makes us feel Dillinger’s sensations (as far as action, at least – since the romance wasn’t as successful), and allows us into what is to be in his experiences. The battle in the lodge, and in the woods, is a captivating shootout that should rank as one of the best ones, if not the best Mann has filmed as of yet. No shooting has been heard as loud and clear, and real, as those ones when the bullets impact a wall or a body; i.e. Mann’s patience to leave the impact of a bullet hitting a wall to be seen randomly around the end of a scene, and the impact back on the viewer by the image and sound. Nor has a contrast between darkness and lightness has been felt as intimidating and suspenseful with Mann as the illumination they created on the faces of Bale and Depp. He has amplified through his career the attention toward the movement within his images and the veracious impact they create in sound and lighting.
Indeed, the merits of the film are defined more by the sensations of some great sections, and the significance of them even if the overall picture lacks consistent greatness. It is a film whose failing lays on the struggle to find interesting, original human interaction when in non-action status, and also some of the narrowness that the film has in material. For example, Melvis Purvis (Christian Bale) is an interesting character with a very good performance, and the film uses him like the trees around his opening scene in which he kills Pretty Boy Floyd, an steady and unmovable person morally and sometimes literally, who is about to be left behind in the new times. But the film ultimately doesn’t move him much in a human sense, or enough to satisfy the potential that the he had as the second most important character in the film; in comparison to other secondary roles in Mann’s films, it is surprisingly minimal. But then so is the film itself in comparison to others. One can’t help to wonder whether the script of PUBLIC ENEMIES is a compressed version of the script from Andrew Dominik’s THE ASSESINATION OF JESSE JAMMES (then again, that was a film that needed trimming). And yet, for all that, the film doesn’t fail to leave an impression, even if the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.
This is Mann’s unapologetic celebration of the crime genre with Dillinger, and a meditative act on a career that has covered all of this material before but never with such a lover’s emotion. The shootouts and Dillinger’s moves are the actual love story between the irresistible dreams projected on the screen and the beholder. The experience is lively, and even romantic for fans of the genre. In his continuous usage of digital filmmaking, Mann has crafted a picture that has archived a closer bond with the immediate and is a self-aware tribute to the cinematic experience, as Dillinger’s by the end, one that leaves some impressions and sensations planted in our minds, as if we would have lived them.