If you make movies for adults, then you have to talk careers. Yes, there’s love, and situation comedy as you get older, but most of adult life is spent at work. A career is when your work matters to you. The director Michael Mann sees anything outside of a career as superfluous. That’s why he makes so many cops ’n robbers movies, because both livings exclude all else. Mann’s protagonists are men the way cowboys were men; their work defines them. Women have too many feelings for Michael Mann. If a stay-at-home mom was his subject, she’d handle her baby like a machine gun. His latest, Public Enemies, is a tale of two workaholics trying to best each other. They’d both choose death over a desk job.
John Dillinger robs banks. His nemesis, Melvin Purvis, is a G-Man. They like to chase each other. Dillinger is a delinquent tease. Purvis is the buttoned-up type. In Depression-era America – and, in a Michael Mann movie – their relationship can’t be consummated with a quick fumble behind the soup kitchen, so instead, when they meet, they fire bullets. Public Enemies is the story of a life-changing summer in 1934, when Dillinger went on a final catch-me-if-you-can crime spree and Purvis ran out of patience. Though ostensibly things were brought to a head by Dillinger’s refusal to stop stealing money, in reality (c’mon, Mel, admit it), it was because John started dating a girl.
Ok, so maybe it isn’t Brokeback Mountain with bank robbers, but casting Johnny Depp as anyone makes for a flustered co-star. Depp is so damn handsome he’d make Mount Rushmore bi-curious. Most of the moral ambiguity in Public Enemies comes from the fact Dillinger looks like Johnny Depp. In a scene where he asks his girlfriend to run away with him, you see her co-worker look at her, as if to say: he looks like that – what does it matter if he kills people? Age has only burnished Depp. He’s fifteen years older than the real John Dillinger when he died, but he could pass for thirty one. Throughout the movie, people gape at him. In a scene where Dillinger has been captured, the public line the streets and cry his name. You need Depp for that scene. He’s required to smirk a lot, so you can’t cast anyone who’s isn’t justifiably smug. Dillinger is like Depp in his hotel-smashing days, pulled through time to see what Pirates of the Caribbean has won him.
If Christian Bale can play anything but psychos with excellent posture, he’s forgot how to. You could put Melvin Purvis in a batsuit and not blink. Not to say Bale isn’t good – but he’s almost too right for a Michael Mann movie. And in real life that has repercussions. Mann’s heroes are guys who eat, sleep and shit perfection. They’re men wound so tight that coiled springs look slack. When Melvin Purvis shoots a criminal dead by way of introduction, my guess is, to Micheal Mann, he’s a go-getter. Bale – and his director – love men who load guns to relax. But while that means they’re both scary-focused on nailing scenes, the human-being element is lacking. Moral ambiguity is further heightened in Public Enemies because 1) (as previously stated) Depp looks like Depp, and 2) Bale may be a robot.
The big sticking point for most people is Mann’s decision to shoot the movie using digital video rather than film. Don’t worry about it. Mann could tell a steely, pulse-jumping story with a camera-phone. He likes digital because he’s not into romance. He wants you there, not swooning over the visuals. Where others see the past as a costume museum, Mann sees the present, with different clothes. The rush you feel watching Public Enemies is the rush of an embedded reporter when a gunfight is caught on film.
Dillinger’s deathbed was outside a movie theatre. He must have been rapt. All his life he worked flat-out to be famous, and his blood-dotted corpse was a must-see before it hit the ground. My bet is: Michael Mann respects a guy who bled prudently for his career. As I watched Public Enemies, I was reminded of something Madeline Stowe once said in interview, about how men are sexiest at work. Isn’t there a double meaning in the title of (Mann’s most famous movie) Heat? Work – when it’s all that matters – is intimate to Mann. He doesn’t make boys’ movies because he looks too deeply. When you love what you do, you’re always brandishing your soul.