Michael Mann’s new movie, Public Enemies (2009), unspools itself at a stately two hours and ten minutes. Meticulous direction and æsthetic skill are expended to recreate a moment in U.S. history that was transformed into folklore by mass media and cinema as soon as it happened.
On 5 March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt instituted a Bank Holiday to prop up trust in a faltering capitalism. On 10 May 1933, John Dillinger (1903-1934) and a few fellow knaves began their own bank holiday. By coincidence, Mann’s recreation of that time is presented to viewers during the start of a new and unprecedented global depression. Truly, there are no new stories, only new depressions to tell them in.
Like his 1995 masterpiece, Heat, Public Enemies gives Mann the chance to portray the “high and low” in the United States. Of course, for liberal Michael Mann the “high” is always the professional middle class. In Public Enemies, this social layer is epitomized by cops. The film is based on Bryan Burroughs’s 2004 book, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-1934. The cops we see at work are agents of what would soon become the FBI. Mighty public relations work, and the turning of a few stool pigeons around the Dillinger case, were the making of J. Edgar Hoover and his national police outfit. The FBI is paraded before us as a department of non-political professionals, scientists of crime we may term a cognitive élite, giving a nod to that hymnal of the petty bourgeoisie, Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). As any activist in the labour or civil rights or anti-war movement can attest, there are fewer institutions of bourgeois rule in the U.S. more political and less scientific than the FBI.
Public Enemies organizes a few scenes around the conflicts between individuals in Hoover’s organization. Billy Crudup plays Hoover as a supremely dismissive and epicene Mussolini-in-becoming. He acquires his sinecure by commanding newsreel cameras and such founts of propaganda sewage as Walter Winchell.
Mann has a genuine interest in cop institutions of capitalist rule, though I doubt he would define it this way. His career is founded on depictions of such institutions. Television shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story presented cops as teams of cool professionals succeeding by wits and teamwork. In Public Enemies, the “Dillinger Squad” is similar to the Major Case Unit in Heat and the 1989 tele-movie LA Takedown. (Mann does not limit his interest in institutions to those of the cops; he also made 1999’s The Insider, which gives us an inside look at both Big Tobacco and CBS News.)
But, while Mann is fascinated by professionals, he typically organizes the dramatic axis of his crime films by alternating scenes of travails of the head cop and head crook as they each try to outwit the other. In Heat, the cop was played by Al Pacino as a narcissist so obsessed with victory he rarely slept; the crook, Robert De Niro, as such a supremo of his craft he could only defeat himself. The final image of that film, with the victorious cop and dying crook holding hands to comfort one-another, perfectly sums-up a century of Hollywood crime dramas: always focus on the individuals.
To its producers, Public Enemies must have looked like the perfect money-spinner. It would depict a great cops-and-robbers struggle; there was sex appeal and a love story (of a kind); and it explored one of the great tragic themes: a hero (in this case Dillinger) undone by his own flaws. To those who say moviegoers will not pay to see a story already filmed as drama and documentary so many times, the producers could retort that another well-known subject, the Titanic sinking, generated a veritable Fort Knox for its makers.
Public Enemies suffers – as Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and Heat do not – from centring its attention on real historical characters. Even when Mann changes facts and alters the chronology, he cannot overcome the stultifying fact that, however dramatically he builds his scenes, viewers will always be ten steps ahead, waiting for him to catch up. The shoot-out at Little Bohemia Lodge might have surpassed the LA street shoot-out in Heat, but it cannot because viewers know Dillinger has a rendezvous with death on 22 July 1934.
As Dillinger, Johnny Depp does well portraying the youth of a man dead at 31. Depp’s Dillinger is a tragic loner, a wounded hero sensitive to his fate, a rebel without a cause alive to the belated nature of his last days. He appreciates his moment of media glory, but seems to sense it has nothing finally to do with him.
The real Dillinger, like all past and future Dillingers in the real world, was a lumpen parasite lobotomized by the cash nexus. However charming the old folk songs about Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd sung by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, these crooks were cretinous individualists and reactionary to the core. They were slapped-down and executed in the streets by cops serving the institutional bandits of Wall Street as an example to others. Crime and theft are expressions of class division and conflict, but only in the most reactionary manner; Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and their ilk aped the most diehard and vile habits of the acquisitive bourgeoisie.
Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis is the ostensible second lead in Public Enemies. This is because the Purvis-Hoover conflict has been the subject of so much scholarship that attempts to portray Purvis as a true alternative to Hoover’s organizational blueprint and personal rule. While liberals may pine, “If only Purvis had defeated Hoover”, there were no ideological or organizational differences between the men, only a conflict over pelf and place.
As an actor, Christian Bale has no equal in the “stony glare” department. Michael Mann lavishes him with numerous contractually required close-ups. But who can remember anything Purvis says? Purvis is shown to be a tyro surrounded by pencil pushers who must request help and guidance from older hands. Said hands arrive seemingly out of the past, through waves of steam from a passenger train, and look like reincarnations of the Earp brothers.
The movie attempts to present Purvis as the agent who defeated Dillinger, but shows us by simple allegiance to historical fact that that role was played by an agent named Charles Winstead. Throughout the second half of the film, it is Winstead who outwits, out-fights, and finally executes Dillinger. Mann telegraphs his own respect for Winstead as against Purvis by casting the fine character actor Stephen Lang in the role. (Lang is an actor Mann has employed before, most memorably as obnoxious and ill-fated Freddy Lounds in the 1986 movie, Manhunter.) Winstead is portrayed as embodying all the wit and professionalism of Western lawmen, much as Tommy Lee Jones was used in The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993) and No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007). Lang’s Winstead is given the final scene, a gem after two hours of predictability. Dramatic logic would demand the Purvis character be given the final scene, as a proper emotional resolution, but, since Mann must depict actual events, Purvis is erased before the movie ends.
Charles Winstead is unknown and unportrayed in previous Dillinger films. Mann has missed a real chance for some fireworks by hewing to the Purvis-Hoover and Purvis-Dillinger line. (Winstead quit the FBI during World War II after making some anti-USSR comments, and went on to become chief of security at Los Alamos. Well, nobody’s perfect; at least he got Dillinger.)
The Dillinger Public Enemies presents is certainly the most handsome movie-star Dillinger we have had. Does every generation get the Dillinger it deserves? In the 1930s, we were given the “mad dog” Bogart-style version. In the 1970s, it was the electrifying and now-forgotten Warren Oates in a pseudo-John Ford style directed by John Milius. Today, we get Johnny Depp, a handsome and self-knowing Dillinger who dies pursuing the “get rich quick” dreams that still bubble up to bewitch the desperate and outcast in class society. (And not just the desperate and outcast.)
The true remedy for crime is solidarity and class consciousness. That is not the subject of summer movies. Or any movies. For the billionaire families that own and run the United States, class consciousness and solidarity will always be Public Enemy Number One.