Let me start by saying this. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is unequivocally the best Hollywood movie of the year. There will be nothing else coming out of Hollywood that comes remotely close. Then again, that’s because Public Enemies is a Hollywood movie that is not a Hollywood movie. Focused on the mythic bank robbing icon John Dillinger, this is no emotionally deep biopic, no in depth character study, no story of human frailties and flaws, no fateful melodrama. It has none of the character depth of early gangster films like Little Ceasar and Public Enemy, no human depth like the epic Godfather I and II, no sexual complexity like Bonnie and Clyde (though it certainly pays tribute to all those films). Public Enemies does what Michael Mann does best. It shows the complexities of men at work and operating in the matrix of other men, and he delivers them as if he were choreographing a minimalist ballet. Men wearing suits and fedoras and wielding machine guns weave through this film like dancers on a stage in which every slight movement stands in for something much larger or simply exists for the pure beauty and mastery of the movement. The film, with its impeccable photography, economy of dialogue, and precisely mastered editing, presents more like an abstract geometric plane flashing with gunfire and leaking blood than an actual movie about characters and incidents. For the most part, it’s hard to make a good film based on real people and events without falling into the tedium of recording history. Public Enemies is successful because it distills all the tedium out of the Dillinger story. The film’s bare minimalism and extreme economy make every single moment in the film count with no extraneous emotion or human excess to weigh down the brilliance of the film as a mythic object in its own right.
This is not to say that the film is simply an abstract exercise about John Dillinger. After all, the movie is called Public Enemies, as in more than one. The interesting thing is that while Dillinger is the focus of the film, he is not the enemy. He is the hero. The enemies in this movie can be found everywhere — from the criminal world to law enforcement to federal agencies — but not in Dillinger. Paying tribute to the notion of good guys and bad guys in cinema, Mann blurs the divide between sides. The characters in his movie could be divided into four categories: 1) the Good Good Guys; 2) the Bad Good Guys; 3) the Good Bad Guys; and 4) the Bad Bad Guys. No, John Dillinger is not the enemy in this film. He is the Good Bad Guy. He is the guy who lives by a code of honor. He is the guy who robs banks, not people. He is a guy just trying to make it in the world. Indeed, a Code Of Honor seems to be the defining factor between the Good and the Bad in Michael Mann’s movies. On the criminal side of this picture you have the impulsive, selfish, excessively violent and greedy Baby Face Nelson representing the Bad Bad Guy. He exhibits no motivation to be honorable and no respect for human life. He will shoot anyone for sheer kicks. He brings everyone down when he casually guns down a bunch of innocent bystanders during the film’s final bank robbery. Dillinger, on the other hand, certainly commits his share of pistol whipping and thuggery, but it is always with clear a purpose and mission (e.g. get the money from the safe). Those he assaults represent systems (banks) and not individuals.
The Good and Bad divide extends beyond criminal lines. Like in Francis Ford Copolla’s gangster opus The Godfather, Mann shows us that the real public enemies reside on the side of the law. Indeed, the biggest enemy in the movie is J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and its fascist pursuit of the “criminal elements” in society. Played with quiet, creepy, psychopathic, megalomaniacal menace by Billy Crudup, J. Edgar Hoover comes off as the face of American fascism that has extended its white gloved hand into the present. In one scene, Hoover literally quotes Mussolini (“It’s time to take off the white gloves . . . ”) right before he awards a row of young white boys lined up in uniform (and looking a hell of a lot like the youth of the Third Reich) with honors for exposing criminals. In Mann’s concise and economic cinematic vocabulary, he uses the Hoover character to expose such pertinent U.S. government practices as illegal surveillance, wire tapping, and torture. As in everything else in this film, these elements are delivered with the lean jolt of rapid fire bullets. In one scene, we see the Feds listening in on phone calls and reading the transcripts of private and intimate conversations. In another, Hoover orders Dillinger’s family to be hunted down, detained, and pressured to inform even though Hoover’s agents explain that Dillinger hasn’t seen his family in years. In a particularly grueling scene, Hoover orders one of his agents to torture one of the apprehended criminals by denying sedation while he has a bullet wedged between his brain and eyeball. To make matters worse, the agent takes sadistic pleasure in pressing on the criminal’s skull and listening to him scream in agony. Certainly these scenes depict historic moments from Hoover’s reign, but they also could be things we’ve read in the newspaper in recent years; they are all uncomfortably familiar. Speaking of the sadistic cop who enjoys watching pain, he would fall into the category of the Bad Good Guys, along with J. Edgar Hoover, and the pig-faced cop who gets his jollies beating Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette.
Then there are the other lawmen in the movie, most notably Dillinger’s pursuer Melvin Purvis, played with perfect stoic confliction by Christian Bale. Purvis is not a Bad Good Guy. He’s just a guy trying to maintain a personal code of honor while performing his job in a system (Hoover’s and America’s increasingly fascistic system) that is far from honorable. In a way, Purvis and Dillinger are two sides of the same coin. They are both men who need to work to make a living but live in a system that could give two shits whether they live or die. Purvis takes the “legitimate” route as a Federal agent, but he is increasingly haunted by the faces of the dead men who he himself has killed and who have been killed by the corrupt system he works for. According to Mann’s vision, working for the system is a murderous blood-soaked operation, not unlike the criminal world. This obviously torments Purvis as Michael Mann plays on Purvis’s obsession with (and fear of) the look of dead men. Every time a significant character dies in the film, Mann moves in for the close-up and details the slow passing of life and the sheet of death coming down on the face and the eyes. He asks us to watch this through the eyes of characters in the film. We see Purvis’s agents and the criminals he pursues die through Purvis’s eyes, and when Dillinger looks into Purvis’s eyes, he sees the toll of Purvis’s job. “Maybe it’s time to find a new line of work,” Dillinger advises Purvis, and the words hit the lawman as effectively as if Dillinger let him have it with his machine gun. It’s hard to find a job that doesn’t eat your soul when you work for the system.
Dillinger, on the other hand, has refused to be a part of the system, other than the small fraternal group of outcasts with whom he works. He’s just trying to make it the best way he can – by robbing the system (economic power and control as represented by banks) that would just assume rob him. Dillinger was a hero for the Great Depression as much as he is a hero for our times (and our own Depression). He is the man who has liberated himself from the fetters of the system by robbing the system that robs the struggling working people. When he meets Billie Frechette and she asks him what he does, he says, “Just catching up.” Indeed, rather than being another disposable cog in the wheel, Dillinger chooses to take control of his own destiny and rob the system that is fucking over the public and “catch-up” the best he can. In a short and effective snapshot moment, Mann shows Dillinger telling a regular working guy to keep his money during one of the bank robberies, and in another scene he shows a crowd of people waving to Dillinger like a hero in a parade as he is escorted to jail in a police car. Indeed, Dillinger as we see him in this movie and as he has been remembered as a mythic icon, is not a Public Enemy but a Public Hero, an icon for revenge against the system, but according to Mann’s definition of heroic, Dillinger is a hero because he lives by his code of honor. He is true to his fraternity of brothers in crime, and he does not sacrifice the safety and stability of the fraternal unit by his own impulsive needs.
In Public Enemies as in his earlier film Heat, Mann shows us that it’s not necessarily the rogue free agent who is a hero, but the free agent who works within a system of free agents who want to liberate themselves from the system of economic power and disparity by robbing it. The heroic act is the ability to honor each other and the mutual goal at hand (a jewelry heist or a bank robbery) and not let impulsive self-interest put the group in danger. It is actually the rogue agents (the Bad Bad Guys) that threaten the subversive system of the criminals who are really just working guys trying to beat the system by robbing it together as a job. Mann’s impeccable photography continually frames these men, Dillinger and his gang, within the matrixes of urban and institutionalized spaces. Apartment buildings, hotels, streets, jails, and bank vaults are composed of intersecting grids of windows, doors, and hallways, showing the characters operating within a matrix that is mimicked in the vast network of phone lines within the telephone surveillance headquarters. The grids that intersect the frames of the film are the grids that Dillinger and his gang have to navigate their way through without being caught. They can only successfully navigate their way by working together as a unit operating within a code of honor and trust. No scene in the movie illustrates this more effectively than the Indiana jail breakout scene which is delivered like a perfectly executed ballet. Working together, Dillinger and his cadre of jail mates, literally break through the grid that traps them as they work together to break through layer upon layer, door upon door, of the jail. They break through one door which leads to another and another. In their movement through the grid, they pass bodies between each other like dancers. They grab guards and guns in beautifully smooth balletic movements, until finally they break free of the multitude of locked doors and cells that have kept them imprisoned. The scene is done with economic efficiency yet moves with a fluid beauty that is mesmerizing to watch.
Indeed, the entire film, with its paired down minimalism and perfectly orchestrated choreography, works more like an abstract ballet than a Hollywood movie. With all the characters reduced to minimal icons not unlike ballet characters, the individual scenes flow like movements in a dance, each one orchestrated by the sublimely beautiful cacophony of machine gunfire. Never have machine guns looked and sounded so stunning. Simultaneously gorgeously excessive and formalistically avant-garde, the movie contains multiple extended scenes that consist only of gunfire – the flash of the machine guns, bullets riddling walls, bodies falling and dying, cars punctured in an ferocious fury of ammunition. In a way, the machine gun is the true star of this movie. Men on both sides are armed with them, and men on both sides die by them. This is a violent world, a world where men bear guns and use guns. The men who work for the law and the men who work outside the law are joined together by this singular weapon – the machine gun, while the banks stand in the middle and the federal agencies stand by the side and watch the men kill each other. The scene at Little Bohemia Lodge in which Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and their crews shoot it out with Purvis and his crew is an absolutely avant-garde explosion of violently beautiful machine gunfire. Every single fraction of the space of the film is riddled with gunshot. While walls disintegrate and windows and bodies explode with bullets, the men hold onto their guns and keep firing as the literal physicality of their world crumbles around them with an excess of bullets. If Jackson Pollock were to paint with machine guns, it would look like this, every inch of the canvas sprayed with gunfire.
Mann engages his economy of style with flawless discipline throughout the film. Much of the film is awash in the abstract geometry of suits and fedoras. All the men are wearing them on both sides of the law. They hang on racks. They are held up as evidence. This is the world of men. When they move out of the urban environment and enter the rural landscape, the shots are as austere and weighted with meaning as the internal grids of the city. In shoot-out scenes in the forest, the characters are reduced to iconic images of hunter and prey, mirroring the kind of primal violence that is part of the same system in the “civilized” city. In the scene when Purvis shoots Pretty Boy Floyd, it’s like he shoots a stag, the wild beauty of nature represented by Floyd’s bright blue suit running through the woods. In the scene when Dillinger and John flee the lodge, they leap through the forest like deer on the run.
Mann’s minimalism is also extended to dialogue. The lines that the characters deliver were chosen with utter precision. No words are wasted, and each line carries the weight of a hundred words in delivering Mann’s point. For example, the dialogue is carefully chosen to depict the financial economic framework in which Dillinger operates, a framework in which the consolidation of power and economic forces reigns. In one US senate scene, J. Edgar Hoover is called into question for “spending more tax payers’ money on his bureau than the robbers are actually stealing.” In another scene, Dillinger explains how he was sentenced to ten years for stealing 50 dollars, and that’s how he met his brothers in crime. In another scene, one of the members of the Syndicate stands in a call center where they are taking bets on horse races, and he explains that every single day they make as much money as Dillinger makes robbing a bank because they are “connected coast to coast,” showing the stretch of economic control. All these short lines and scenes are delivered like terms in a larger equation, the sum total of which is that government and the criminal syndicate are one and the same and are in collusion for one thing – the consolidation of economic power. Ultimately, Dillinger is a danger to that economic power, so the government and the Syndicate work together to bring him down.
The final scenes in the film are some of the most complex and beautifully done. The last part of the film is layered and loaded with self-reflexivity. It doesn’t just detail the eventual shooting and killing of Dillinger, but it also explores Dillinger’s status of mythic icon. Using cinema itself and representations of Dillinger and gangsters in film and media, Mann shows Dillinger reflecting on his own status as a mythic icon while also asking us to reflect on our relationship to him and how he functions in Mann’s movie itself. In one scene, Dillinger sits in a movie theater while J. Edgar Hoover talks on the screen about his mission to capture “Public Enemy Number One.” The lights in the theater come on, and the audience is asked to look around for Dillinger. As the audience looks side to side, Dillinger looks out of the screen at us, the audience sitting in the theater in 2009 watching this Dillinger movie. In other words, we are asked to put ourselves into the audience within the film and subsequently question our own implication in government witch hunts propagated by media. At the same time, we are also asked to address our own romanticization of the Dillinger myth because no one in the audience wants Dillinger to be caught. He is the hero. In another witty and clever scene, Dillinger actually enters the Dillinger Squad Room at the police station and studies all the documents on the walls, the photos of him and his gang and looks at himself from the outside, a brilliant moment of exploring his identity as an object removed from himself but also inextricably wedded to himself.
The final Dillinger scene in real life as well as in this movie takes place in the movie theater. This scene brilliantly recognizes Mann’s role in orchestrating the story of Dillinger through his cinematic vision while also using the cinematic apparatus, a film within a film, to show once again that heroism is defined by codes of honor not by what side of the law you reside on. Dillinger is watching Manhattan Melodrama, and Clark Gable is a gangster who has been issued the death sentence. William Powell tries to save his life, but Clark Gable says that would be hell, that he would much rather “die on the inside like he lived on the outside.” That sets the table for Dillinger’s death. It was only in my second viewing that I realized that when lawman Charles Winstead cleanly shoots Dillinger in the back of the head that Winstead is performing an Act Of Honor from one brother to another. By executing him cleanly, Winstead allows Dillinger go out the way Clark Gable wants to go out in Manhattan Melodrama. Mann has a hero kill a hero, and the Good Good Guy kills the Good Bad Guy in the final heroic act. Dillinger is not shot down by the sadistic pig-faced cop. He is not captured by the Feds and hauled back into the system. He dies by the Code of Honor on the street in front of the movie theater. He dies in his full mythic status in front of the movie theater on the screen as we watch him from our seats in our own neighborhood movie theaters. Now I understand why there have been so many books (including a book-length poem) written about “the man who shot Dillinger.” He is the quiet hero in Dillinger’s death, at least that is how Mann portrays him in the film as we watch the final scene in the movie when Winstead delivers Dillinger’s dying message to his girl Billie Frechette: “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
As the final credits role, there is no doubt in our mind that Dillinger was not a Bad Guy. He is not the Public Enemy in this movie picture or in the picture we are living in today. But what makes this movie so successful is that Mann doesn’t exploit Dillinger as good either. Mann doesn’t give us easy access to Dillinger’s character, his humanity, or his depth. What he gives us is a portrait of an icon, and Mann maintains Dillinger’s status as icon by delivering him with precision and economy as a work of art. The closest we come to understanding Dillinger as a human is when we see him in relation to his own iconic status (e.g. in the squad room and the movie theater). Mann distills the Dillinger legend and the characters and stories that surrounded it into a cleanly executed document that resists emotional investment or standard biopic character exploits. To me, it is precisely this economy and lack of depth that make the movie so watchable. Like a poem or a ballet, every word and every movement stands on its own for a thing of beauty and meaning. It needs to be appreciated in each singular act and frame and how they connect and interconnect without relying on easy access. I saw the movie twice in less than twenty-four hours and wasn’t bored in the slightest. In fact, I was even more enthralled during the second viewing because I could savor each piece of the film as if I were dissecting an intricate machine. If the movie was cluttered with excessive emotion, character and story, I could not appreciate how so much is delivered through the balletic poetry of image, line, and form.
Nevertheless, as abstract and experimental as the movie is, it is still a movie of our times, a time when it seems like we need to be reminded of that legendary hero who beat the system by robbing the banks that represent it and that rob us. A time when we need to be reminded that the government, the bureaus it creates, and the economic forces that support their power are their own kind of criminals. They are the Public Enemies. But it is also a time when things should not come easy, when we should be asked to think rather than blindly consume. Though I must admit, it is also a time when shooting machine guns sure looks good.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.