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On Movies: Lot to like in 'Public Enemies'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 3, 2009 -  There is a truism in the screenwriting business: “If you want a character to be loved, give him someone to love.” You could do that. Or, you could just hire Johnny Depp. Filmmaker Michael Mann touches both of those bases – he hires Depp and gives him someone to love -- in his fine, visually arresting, viscerally exciting new movie “Public Enemies.”

Depp plays 1930s bank robber John Dillinger with a low key sense of mystery and menace. Dillinger has none of the “aw-shucks” naiveté that makes Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow so winning in “Bonnie and Clyde” – speaking of gangster movies where the hero is given someone to love.

Depp’s Dillinger may be an Indiana farm boy, but he’s no hick. He is intelligent, shrewd, mostly well-mannered, charming. But he’s still a thug, always ready to strike out brutally at anyone who crosses him, even in a minor way.

The man’s not overly hampered by a conscience – he refuses to join the kidnapping craze of the era, but not because kidnapping usually leads to dead babies. “People don’t like kidnappers,” he explains to his girlfriend, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). “People like bank robbers,” he adds.

At least they did in the Depression, when, in the minds of millions of victims of foreclosures or lost savings, the banks were the biggest robbers of all. Dillinger, who is careful not to steal directly from individuals, hides in plain sight, among ordinary people, people who prefer bank robbers to banks.

The time is 1933, and outlaws like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson are running wild, generating frenzied front page coverage as they loot poorly guarded banks across the Midwest and Southwest. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, seething with internal rage) is in the process of stoking up public opinion by launching a “war on crime,” using the wave of bank robberies and kidnappings to build the power of what became the FBI.

His main weapon in the war is relentless Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who had his own internal demons and later would be destroyed by Hoover. At the same time, the farm boy bank robbers were getting under the skin of the Mafia, who understandably were not big supporters of a war on crime. Some historians have said that Hoover and the Mob worked things out, and Mann at least suggests that possibility, although he does not dwell on the point.

Mann, a veteran director of notably stylish crime movies (“Heat,” “Manhunter”), keeps “Public Enemies” moving along without letting it become nothing more than a series of violent bank robberies and jail breaks.

He and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (“L.A. Confidential,” “Heat”) shoot much of “Public Enemies” in intense close-up. The cutting can be fast, at least in the action scenes, yet you never get the feeling, as you do with some younger MTV-trained directors, that the characters are disjointed images lost in space. Mann moves the camera in such a way that you almost always know where people are in relationship to one another, who they are running from, and who they shooting at.

There’s an exception to that – the explosive scene where Dillinger and fellow bank robber Baby Face Nelson are trapped by the feds in the Little Bohemia lodge in rural Wisconsin, and proceed to shoot their way out. It’s nighttime in the deep, dark woods, and the ferocious battle moves so quickly that from time to time you lose track of Dillinger and Nelson and Purvis, as they clearly were losing track of each other. The scene is a thrilling, bravura exercise in complicated, contrapuntal action, and must have been a bear to block out on paper.

Mann is known for creating indelible images, and the most memorable scene in “Public Enemies” is the breathtaking depiction of the arrival of Dillinger at an Indiana airport after his arrest in Florida. He steps down from an ominous looking Ford Trimotor airplane and a crowd of reporters and photographers meet him. Orange flares are set off to provide light for the photographers, and bits of the scene are glimpsed in sepia tone as patches of light burst out and then quickly ebb, creating a sense of powerful forces edging out of control in a vivid historical setting.

In some crime movies you find yourself rooting for the criminals. “Public Enemies” is more complex than that. At times, watching the Dillinger gang and the feds go at it with Thompson submachine guns was, for me, like watching the Mets play the Cubs. It’s hard to root for either side; what captures your interest is how the various players play the game. In “Public Enemies,” Purvis and Dillinger are worthy opponents, and, although you may know the outcome, the game they play is a thrill to watch.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.