Throughout 1933-1934, the United States fell under attack not to any foreign power, but to a host of notorious gangsters. For 18 months, these criminals wreaked havoc on cities throughout the country, robbing banks and killing dozens. The individuals responsible for such acts would become legends in American folklore: Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger.
The film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, gives us a glimpse into the lives of two men, both headed on a course that will lead them to inevitable confrontation and infamy. In one corner is the notorious John Dillinger (Depp), “Public Enemy Number One” – a thief and a murderer at the height of his career. In the other corner is Melvin Purvis (Bale), the FBI agent given the task of bringing Dillinger’s reign to an end.
For those already familiar with the historical accounts of Dillinger and his exploits, the events in the movie will come as no surprise. Ultimately, this is Dillinger’s story and so the film spends much of its time focused on his actions. But its attention to the events comes at the price of character development. Insights into the man behind the legend are just as interesting as the historical facts, but this film provides only a few glimpses into Dillinger’s humanity. When we do see those moments, they are compelling. We watch as he struggles with the realization that gangsters like him are finite and that more sophisticated crimes make his bank robbery methods obsolete.
In contrast to the recklessness and charm of Dillinger’s character is agent Melvin Purvis, the man in charge of the Chicago field office. Bale’s Purvis is a man with razor-sharp focus and unquenchable determination. Although Purvis is mostly one-dimensional, we are exposed to his imperfections. His impatience often leads to errors in judgment, which gives Dillinger opportunities to esacpe apprehension.
From a story perspective, Public Enemies is a solid gangster film, not lacking in the type of action one expects from the genre. Its focus, however, mainly centers on historical fact at the expense of well-rounded characters. From a technical standpoint, the movie falls short. The video shooting format was not handled well in some places. Although it did provide some nice deep depth-of-field compositions, some interiors were flat and underlit, and I couldn’t help but compare some action sequences to re-enactments one might see on TV documentaries. Good film, but it could have been incredible.
6 out of 10