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Public Enemies: Michael Mann's Moral Relativism By: S. T. Karnick
The New Ledger | Monday, July 27, 2009


Michael Mann's new film, Public Enemies, conveys some impressive insights into modernity, but his choice to avoid the truth about his central characters exemplifies how the contemporary denial of moral clarity destroys drama and truth.

Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, attempts to tackle some big ideas. Unfortunately, it misses most of them, and has aesthetic weaknesses as well. Particularly egregious is the film's mistaken attempt to create greater audience sympathy for a criminal than he merits, as it falsifies the drama and makes the characters less interesting than they should be.

Mann, the director of superb crime films such as Manhunter and Heat and creator of the television series Miami Vice, tells the story of John Dillinger, a real-life bank robber whom the film depicts as having become something of a folk hero during the 1930s, and Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to bring him down.

As is typical of Mann's films (note the examples mentioned above), Public Enemies deals with two equally matched central characters on opposite sides of law. The film's title--which alludes to the Jimmy Cagney gangster film Public Enemy--the two men are very public enemies, and their adversarial relationship is at the center of the film. Dillinger and Purvis are both highly talented men, but one uses his talents for good and the other uses them for evil.

That's a laudable emphasis, in that it foregrounds a belief in moral responsibility, as opposed to the moral relativism that became increasingly common in the culture during the past few decades.

Unfortunately, Mann's dramatic approach has an important flaw: by virtue of his actions, the criminal character has a powerful obstacle to the audience's sympathies--the harm he does to other people must necessarily be somewhat unattractive. As a result, Mann has to suguarcoat Dillinger and underplay Purvis's virtues in order to give them a more equal hold on the audience's sympathies.

For example, we see Dillinger as being greatly devoted to his girlfriend, Billy Frechette, but we are shown nothing about Purvis's personal life. The film alludes to Dillinger's predilection for prostitutes, but it places much more emphasis on his monogamous (though unmarried) relationship with Billie--which is not true to the historical facts. In addition, during one of his bank robberies, Dillinger refuses to take the money of an individual patron, saying he's interested only in "the bank's money."

Regardless of whether the real-life Dillinger may have said or thought that, the exchange is obviously meant to generate audience sympathy. What is particularly corrupt about this moment is that the obvious logical rejoinder--that all the money in the bank is ultimately some individual's money--is not given a hearing.

Reinforcing the positive depiction of the criminal Dillinger is the film's references to him as being a folk hero. These may have some basis in history (though I have my doubts about whether these Depression-era criminals were as widely considered to be heroes as postwar American historians made them out to be), but the references certainly must undermine the audience's natural repugnance at his crimes.

All of this seems too obviously an attempt to avoid creating a story with a clear hero and definite villain, in deference to the mistaken notion that life is always a matter of shades of gray. That is quite false: when it comes to gangsters and police, the police are the good guys, and the gangsters are bad. Attempting to deny such obvious truths is both historically and aesthetically wrong.

To be sure, Public Enemies does make it clear that Dillinger is purely hedonistic, dreaming of escape to South America and a life of leisure and pleasure, but these things are not particularly uncommon or interesting. They are also emblematic of the damage Mann's sugarcoating of Dillinger does to the characterization and to the ability of the film to generate drama: by making Dillinger seem more like us, it makes him much less interesting.

As a result, Depp's performance is unusually listless; a vividly brash and selfish character more like Cagney's in Public Enemy would be much more interesting as well as true to life. It would also provide a significantly more formidable foe for Purvis, thus elevating the latter's stature as a character as well. And in doing both those things it would raise the dramatic value of the film, by increasing the evident danger for society of a failure on Purvis's part.

While mostly refraining from encouraging the audience to like Purvis, Mann does show him very sympathetically at one point, when Purvis helps Billie Frechette after she has been mistreated by a police officer while in custody. Nonetheless, the overall attempt to make Dillinger more sympathetic and Purvis less so makes both characters incoherent and forces the two highly skilled actors into performances that are unusually dull for them.

A comparison to the excellent 1934 MGM film Manhattan Melodrama is quite revealing in this regard, and it's relevant in that the film plays a prominent part in Public Enemies (it's the movie Dillinger visited before his death by police gunfire), with Mann even showing a long excerpt of it.

Manhattan Melodrama is similar to Public Enemies in having two strong characters on opposite sides of law, but the 1930s film firmly establishes that for all his likable characteristics, the gangster Blackie (Clark Gable) is a menace whom society cannot allow to run free.

Although Blackie does some very good things, the film makes it abundantly clear that those actions do not and cannot compensate for his crimes (and just punishment was a requirement of the movies' Production Code at the time). Hence he requires redemption, and that can only come (in terms of eartlhy justice) by paying for his crimes. That makes for a highly satisfying ending to the film, as the writers give Blackie a chance to make his necessary death bring some good by saving the career of childhood friend and now upright DA Jim Wade (William Powell).

Public Enemies, by contrast, treats Dillinger's death as something to be lamented. This is made especially clear in the emotionally charged images in which the death scene is filmed, as well as in a scene in which the gangster's last words are conveyed to Billie--he has said to tell her, "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," quoting a song they both loved. It may be sweet, but Dillinger was responsible for the deaths of numerous people, and that can't be remedied by a sentimental reference to a charming popular song.

Similarly, when Dillinger is arrested earlier in the film and taken back to Indiana, the soundtrack plays somber music. One doubts that the relatives of his gang's victims felt particularly broken up about Dillinger's being brought to justice. We shouldn't, either, and the filmmakers certainly shouldn't attempt to manipulate us into doing so. The makers of Manhattan Melodrama didn't make that mistake of moral equivalency between criminals and the defenders of the citizenry.

Public Enemies does manage one thing very well, however: it very well conveys the theme of individualism confronted by collectivism, the individual increasingly coming under the domination of big organizations. This was indeed a powerful trend of the Depression era, with government taking over vast areas of what used to be private matters.

A particularly astute and pointed element of the film is Mann's likening of government coercion to the brutal use of force committed by gangsters. A very good example of this occurs when Dillinger is attempting to hide out from the police and finds out that Frank Nitti's gang won't give him any help. "We're in the modern age," a Nitty lieutenant tells Dillinger. He explains that modern crime profits from business-like efficiency, and the film makes it clear that individualists like Dillinger are anachronisms in the "modern age" of big organizations running roughshod over individuals' rights.

The film explicitly connects this to the growth of overweening government. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is shown as priding himself on creating an ultramodern national police force that uses the most advanced methods available, in the hands of young agents who have been trained only in modern methods. Purvis, however, recognizes that traditional police virtues are still necessary--patience, legwork, use of informants, etc.--and replaces his Hoover-picked crew with a group of hardnosed cops from Texas and Oklahoma.

Thus the two central characters, though on opposite sides of the law and the moral divide, both represent the plight of the individual confronted by the bloated institutions of modernity and the widespread contempt for individual liberty. In that regard, Public Enemies is very successful indeed.

It's too bad that Mann's unwillingness to tell the truth about his central characters radically diminishes the film's drama and power.


S. T. Karnick is editor of the American Culture website.


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