Thursday, 2 July 2009

Public Enemies



It went in at around #170 in IMDb's 'top 250 films' list on its first day of release. To me that suggests that the faithful had turned out on the first day of opening and, having had all their Michael Mann buttons firmly pressed, came away sufficiently mollified to canonise the film without pausing to reflect on whether what they'd seen was actually worthwhile.

Every film should be assessed on its own merits, not through the prism of its predecessors or progenitors. Michael Mann's Public Enemies is a thorough film in many ways with its detailed research often evident on screen and sporting a fluid but comprehensive structure. Yet Public Enemies skates over the drama of its content in pursuit of some other aesthetic and in this Michael Mann has overplayed his hand.

Mann doesn't like being called a stylist and refuses to acknowledge fulfilling the demands of commonly understood genre. These are reasonable denials from an auteur meticulous in his pre-production. Instead Mann likes to fashion something rather more organic from his own exhaustive research into the subject and story.

Consequently, in this film, he has tried to use original locations and pull into the foreground those elements of his research which are unusual and interesting. In this interview for The Guardian Mann lists some of these, e.g. the examination of Dillinger's coat style and tailor and the rudimentary FBI wire taps (a contemporaneous novelty). He also gets excited by his own discovery that not only did they film a set piece shoot out in its original Wisconsin location but it happened to be on the same date as the actual event:
... the real magic is that when Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger is asleep in the same bed and the FBI assault begins, Johnny Depp is in literally the same bed and the same room that John Dillinger was...
Well, here's the classic problem with Mann's auteurial version of The Method. No, that's not the real magic. It may be inspiring for the actors and crew but it's not interesting per se to the audience who will not be able to tell the location apart from your average stage set. Magic may make itself to the screen as the actors, in this unique situation, find something special to communicate but the information that this is the 'hallowed ground' is superfluous. Indeed, in the case of Purvis making an ever-so-slightly laboured point about the coat we begin to see the detail taking over the drama in this way - we begin to see the director taking over the characters. This is the way in which Michael Mann has exceeded himself, flooding his cast with a surfeit of detail and, in doing so, risking the substitution of his own voice in place of those actors trying to invest those characters.

Purvis is the absolute example of this. There is no more thorough, self-effacing A-list Hollywood actor working at the moment than Christian Bale (indeed, the in-at-#170ish effect may well be as much to do with him as it is to do with Mann - remember who else was in the cast of similar list-crasher The Dark Knight?). However, Melvin Purvis is little more than a 1930s, white-collar trope in Mann's film, a period attack dog, sent to up the ante on Dillinger and create the heightened drama that makes the film. There is no extemporary explanation as to why Purvis has the slo-mo, tight-shot moments that Mann affords him in his pursuit of Dillinger. Neither do we see him react as Dillinger's career progresses in defiance of Purvis' remit.

The worst offence though is in the penultimate caption that closes the film, which tells us that Purvis lived on until the 1960s when he took his own life. Surely if this isn't the real drama that needs investigating, then it ought to be the one that focuses Mann's mind.

Clearly Dillinger is a close relation of the consequent uber-villain Neil MaCauley from Mann's own (fictional) Heat. The drama of Heat is in the existential stand-off between the two men whose pursuit of life and self-definition must result in taking the life of the other. If Dillinger is a predecessor of MaCauley then Purvis must mirror Hanna. Now we are not privy to Purvis' marital situation and neither do we get a parlay over coffee as we do in Heat. But really - if this man brought in to bring down the principal bank thief of the Great Depression then goes on to take his own life having achieved his goal, then this must be the next part of a tale which can be extrapolated from the MaCauley Hanna relationship?

Reviews in The Times and The Telegraph - two stars apiece - are critical of this lack of drama, as Mann's focus on the detail to bring the drama alive conversely starves the drama of life. It will be interesting to see which way the official slew of reviews tends when it comes tomorrow. In the meantime one suspects that Mann may find his own words coming back to bite him (from the Guardian interview again):
the second... one forgets the dramatic imperative, that's the second it decays into meaninglessness
Quite so.

UPDATE (3 July, three star reviews):
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, "Everything is very, very male."
Robert Quinn in The Independent, "fatalism, to have any impact, needs to be more single-minded and stately than this."
UPDATE (4 July):
Mark Kermode on Radio 5 Live suggests that the film has had better reviews than it ought.

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