Pros: Incredible movie; flawless cinematography, all star cast, great performances. Realism.
Cons: Total realism. I don't think its a con, but it hurt the box office.
Public Enemies (2009) Directed by Michael Mann
Melvin Purvis: What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?
John Dillinger: Coffee.
John Dillinger. He robbed banks. In the Great Depression, he became something of a folk hero, robbing banks across the Midwest. And Hollywood loved him; a larger than life figure, living by his own rules, taking from the rich banks, but declining to take the customer's money, betrayed in the end by the lady in red.
Michael Mann has taken another direction with this movie. Reality. It is a novel concept, but there it is. Instead of basing his movie about John Dillinger on all the other movies about John Dillinger, he based it on John Dillinger. What you have is a considerably different sort of tale.
John Dillinger robbed banks. It was what he did for a living. It was how he described himself to Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). It seems charming and disingenuous. But what if that was all there was? John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) served ten years for robbing a grocery store of $50. In prison, he learned from the other cons how to be an effective criminal. Most of his men were in it for the money. A few were in it for the chaos. Dillinger was in it to rob banks. He liked the planning. He hated the controls of society. He hated prison, he hated the police, and he hated banks, because each is ruled by regulations, ones he saw as unfair and arbitrary. So he lived a life planning the next job, performing it, and then planning the one after that.
His counterpart, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) was much the same. What did he do for a living? He tried to catch bank robbers for the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation. As one of J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) bright young men of the right background, there was a lot of pressure on him to succeed. His genius was in realizing he couldn't do it. He forced Hoover to recruit seasoned lawmen that had actually been in a gun fight. And they started to succeed. Part of the reason Dillinger was so successful was his connections in the underworld. As public enemy number one, he became toxic. His presence drew investigation, and soon he was without a support net work.
Dillinger's other weakness was Billie Frechette. He was obsessed with protecting her. The police knew this. It was the closest they came to capturing him and still missing. This epic love story gets the full Mann treatment. The facts were John Dillinger was not one of the great romantics, and Billie was not his lady fair. Dillinger needed someone to protect, to act as he thought men were supposed to act. Billie needed to be needed. She needed the protection he offered. She needed the notoriety. Were they a modern Romeo and Juliette, or a dysfunctional pair of misfits whose disorders reinforced each other? My money is on the latter, but Mann wisely does not answer the question. He doesn't really try to answer any questions. He just puts the story out there, as close to the truth as he can get it, and lets you draw your own conclusions. And here is the perfect example. Where was John Dillinger gunned down? Outside the movie theatre, just after seeing Clark Gable in Manhattan Melancholy, a movie about gangsters. Who tipped the police off? Anna Sage (Branka Katic), the woman in red. What was the woman in red wearing? A white blouse and an orange skirt. Mann does not fall for the legend, but instead presents verifiable fact.
I think that is why this movie did not do as well as one would think; the truth is not as sexy as the legend. Dillinger escaped prison and jail numerous times. Was it all his brilliance, or police incompetence, or luck? The truth is the least entertaining combination of all three. We want Dillinger to be some sort of larger than life figure; a modern day Robin Hood. The fact was, he was a crook, a bad man, and just not very nice.
And what of Johnny Depp's performance as this intense criminal? I saw a poster that said it best; "How does a man who plays a gay insane chocolateer, a gay insane pirate, and a gay insane hat maker land the role as John Dillinger? TALENT." And what makes him so good in the role is he makes Dillinger so very ordinary. He was bright, he was daring, but he was not a romantic swashbuckler. He just robbed banks.