Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, in 'Public Enemies'

Dir. Michael Mann
(2009, R, 140 min)
★ ★

Directed by Michael Mann (The Insider, Collateral), Public Enemies recounts the crime spree of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), but it’s all glossy surface, a conventional gangster saga that colors inside the lines.

Dillinger was a folk hero, so we’re told. The public admires him. They harbor him. When he’s arrested, crowds line the street to cheer him on as he’s driven away by the police. He commands a press conference when he arrives at the jail in handcuffs, boasting that he can conduct a robbery in a minute, forty seconds — “flat.” As times become desperate, there is a conversation about expanding to kidnap-and-ransom, to which Dillinger scoffs: the public doesn’t like kidnappings. He’s worried about the bad press.

But why was Dillinger such a hero? There’s an opportunity here to explore the conditions of 1930s America. A title card at the start of the film announces that it is the fourth year of the Great Depression, and after he stages a prison break in the opening scenes a poor woman in front of a derelict-looking house asks him to take her with him. But that’s about it. Missing are the details to truly evoke the widespread economic hardship of the era; the film is more interested in Dillinger the man, who travels in far richer circles than those who revere him.

Dillinger was charismatic, so we’re told. Depp, in general a very charismatic actor, isn’t as charismatic in the role as the screenplay intends. When he barges in on love interest Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, Oscar-winner for La Vie En Rose) at her job as a coat-check girl and practically bullies her into becoming his girlfriend, my first thought was, she looks smart enough to know better.

Their romance is rushed. He sees her from across the room, disarms her with his honesty by telling her matter-of-factly who he is, and shortly after sweeping her out of her coat-check booth they’re whispering sweet nothings and exchanging promises of forever. Later in the film, much of our emotional investment depends on our belief that the lovers will go to the ends of the Earth for each other, and on that level it falls short.

Pursuing the outlaw is federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), whose profile is high after his slaying of another infamous robber, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). He is appointed to lead the Dillinger task force by self-aggrandizing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who wants additional funding for his war on crime and hopes the apprehension of Dillinger will convince a Congressional committee. The Hoover character is drawn too broadly; Crudup is stiffly mannered in the role, a parody of arrogant officiousness. Add a pair of floppy ears and he’s Mr. Peabody from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Public Enemies develops along the same lines as Ridley Scott’s American Gangster from 2007 — an honest investigator pursues a seemingly untouchable criminal mastermind — but Scott’s film was superior and highlights the deficiencies of Mann’s docudrama, particularly in the underdevelopment of the Purvis character, whom we learn little about other than that he is investigating Dillinger. At the end of the film we’re told Purvis’s fate — he left the FBI a year after the Dillinger case and took his own life in 1960 — which suggests a man more interesting than we’ve had a chance to meet.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Public Enemies is overlong, and I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of the supporting players or subplots, which include a proposed train robbery and an interstate gambling racket. It’s more troubling, I suppose, that I wasn’t interested enough to try.

Note: The film was conspicuously underlit at the showing I attended, to the point where indoor and night scenes — which is to say, most of the scenes — were often difficult to make out. I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to director of photography Dante Spinotti, who has been nominated twice for Oscars (L.A. Confidential, The Insider), and assume instead a problem in the projection room, but as this may have affected my experience of the film, I feel it necessary to report.