Impressions of ‘Public Enemies’ (2009)

by pinstripeowl

This was on the telebox the other night and I wanted to write something brief about its camera&etc work that struck me. Both as a note to myself as I found it interesting and to wake up this languishing blog. When I initially saw the posters for Public Enemies, I was quite excited. Depp & Bale in 30s get-up, with gangsters and tommy guns – that sounded quite the draw. I didn’t get around to it and it fell off the peripheries of the map, as is so often the case.

Theatrical poster

I hadn’t noticed the director at the start of the film, Michael Mann, but despite that was throughout the film regularly thinking about his 1995 film Heat, which was a much more compelling viewing, perhaps because the characters were given far more emotion with which to work. Working from non-fiction does not preclude characterisation. In fact, I’d argue that given these people are apparently such big things in the American consciousness of history, they should be human. Obviously they’re not played for larger than life, instead a more real, world-weary greyness, but there shouldn’t really be more emotion in Bale in Equilibrium. The silent looks of welling tears can only be used *so* much before they look a bit bizarre. 

Also oh god the camerawork, it was so distracting. Digital hand-held cameras with little to no soundtrack except diegetic snippets of music from the era, particularly with a sparse script, left me cold. Rather like a Van Sant film than what you might imagine from the premise. Actually, that comparison seems more apt now I come to edit this post. From my paper-scrap scrawls mid film to the draft of this, I looked at one or two easy-to-find reviews online and was struck by Douglas Messerli referring to Depp’s turn as “balletic”. As a film of set pieces, it might have been more effective using entirely diegetic sounds/recordings over their live action. Or even using the news reports of the time – like a montage effect but with less cheesy-80s connotations.

Did I want a blockbuster, action-packed and adrenaline-pumped? Not particularly, but some life would have done – even if the protagonists were intended to seem so tired. It all seemed a bit flat. Contrast with a quiet character like George Smiley from Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyHe says little and yet remains quietly compelling. Am I just naturally more drawn to Gary Oldman? Hm. He works in contrast to the more emotional characters, particularly near the climax of the film. At the climax of Public Enemies, or rather, the multiple catch-release shoot outs, I was periodically looking at the clock going “well, there’s an hour of the film left, so clearly there’s no danger here”. The deaths of the surrounding characters were meaningless to me because they were not given a chance to exist for us as an audience.

You know what I think the most effective scene of that film was, tellingly? It was at the theatre, with Dillinger watching Manhattan Madness, and truly feeling, I think, a connection to the idea of a character that no longer existed in the world. Both him and Purvis, the script is at pains to point out repeatedly, are perhaps more comfortable in the older days of chasing criminals through orchards, without the science and the morally conflicted methods of the new Bureau. Had the film wanted to go down this route more and make a point about the shifting paradigm, then yeah, it’d be more focussed. As it was, it was too emotionally detached. The love between Dillinger and Frechette (Cotillard), didn’t bring any dynamic either: there were early warnings to avoid the women because blah blah old trope of attachments are dangerous, but it isn’t delivered. There’s no real arc to speak of, and it watched like a historical document rather than bringing that history to life, which with some more innovative use of archival sound, it could have, compellingly.