Mann, Where are we?

Public Enemies directed by Michael Mann

By all accounts, Public Enemies should have been a good, maybe even great movie. It had all the requisite components; big stars, a top-notch director, a great bit of fabled Americana to work with and enough money to pull off a proper recreation of the period. With all this going for it, it came as a bit of a surprise that Public Enemies turned out to be .....well, boring actually. I don't mean boring as in “dull” but rather boring as in “forgettable”. Ten minutes after the credits rolled I couldn't remember more than a couple of scenes. The whole thing felt disconnected and unfocused, something I'd never have guessed a Michael Mann production would.

I kicked around what might have gone wrong and came up with a few possibilities. The script meanders around and doesn't develop any of the characters beyond Depp's Dillinger (and to a lesser degree Bale's FBI agent Melvyn Purvis). The love interest played by Marion Cotillard shows up for a few scenes to do what women do in these movies; fall in love with the bad guy, cry, say things like "Don't do it Johnny" and then cry some more. Depp isn't a favourite of mine but he holds his own as Dillinger and if anything underplays his character a tad much. I saw Bale back to back (in this and the new Terminator movie) and find he increasingly grates on me with each new plum role he lands. Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover is the lone standout in the crowd. Everyone else is uninteresting because their roles are either underwritten or ended up on the cutting room floor.

The weak script is a minor problem made exponentially worse by something that dawned on me toward the end of the movie. Public Enemies is shot on HD video (not film) and I think that might be the source of the problem. For whatever reason, Mann chose to shoot much of the film in extreme closeup (probably because the HD camera allowed it), but it often seems pressed too far into the scenes. For about half the movie, the camera seems jammed right up in the character's faces and as a result the environment they're in ends up cropped and off-screen. This odd framing makes it difficult to place the unfolding events in any geographic or spacial context and the scenes seem like loosely connected set pieces rather than part of anything whole. I scoured reviews of Public Enemies to see if anyone else found the camera work intrusive but couldn't find it specifically mentioned. Maybe it's just me.

Michael Mann is a director that has traditionally infused a fairly unique style into his work. Music and cinematography are integral to most Mann productions and it doesn't always work. Heat, arguably his most accomplished film, is an example where he was firing on all cylinders and the result was spectacular. Ali and Miami Vice (the 2006 movie) are examples where that might not have been the case (although truth be told, I quite liked Miami Vice). Public Enemies is thematically closest to Heat in terms of story and characterization so I thought I'd look around to try and find examples of some stills from both films that might illustrate this theory.

The following two stills demonstrate the framing differences in a showcase set-piece from each film. The first is from the bank robbery in Heat, a close up of Pacino in a firefight with De Niro's gang. It's framed to include a city bus, a couple of cars and the muzzle flash from Pacino's gun and places the action in some context. It's the middle of the day, in an urban centre and very much in an open public space. The second still showing Depp in a similar scene from Public Enemies is drained of dramatic tension because all we see is Depp's face. Where the hell is he? Is anyone around? The whole film suffers from dozens of these close-cropped shots and it began to feel like watching a football game with the camera constantly isolated in a close up on the quarterback. It's endlessly frustrating because we never get to see the whole field.

The second two stills show the meeting of the two leads from each film. The Pacino/De Niro meeting in the restaurant from Heat is brilliantly shot. It alternates between closeups and wide shots of the two lead characters and the cat and mouse game they're playing. The framing of the wide shots once again defines the setting spatially. The meeting in Public Enemies between Purvis and Dillinger (which by the way never happened) is shot with this convoluted medium focus that once again removes any texture and boundaries from the scene.

I rarely get all that jazzed about how a movie is shot but Public Enemies lost all sense of flow for me because the “where” kept getting lost. The aforementioned bank robbery in Heat works because we know where everyone is (trapped on the street) and where they have to get to (past the cops). It's exhilarating because we can almost feel what it might be like to be in the middle of this fire-fight. It's chaotic, terrifying and full of adrenaline. One of the big shoot-outs in Public Enemies on the other hand, takes place at a lodge in the woods at night and it doesn't work because, like the football analogy above, you can't get a handle on where anyone is. It too is chaotic but there's no tension because the opposing teams aren't lined up in any discernible way. As a result, it ends up just being noisy and confusing.

Public Enemies is Heat turned up to, in the words of Nigel from Spinal Tap, “Eleven.... because it's louder” Everything is a little bit bigger, a little more stylized and a lot less engaging. It seems a perfect metaphor for what's wrong with Hollywood filmmaking these days. It's got too much of everything and not enough of anything that matters.



the coelacanth said...


really interesting analysis, sporg., and the screen captures help illustrate the point. i, too, liked miami vice (never saw it), and am wondering lately whether or not certain directors are simply "losing it" or this is part of a greater hollywood trend, as you infer. mann, nolan, fincher, gilliam, et al... are these minds and creativities moldering, or simply bending to the whims and pocketbooks of studio execs? for idealistic reasons, i'm kinda hoping it's the former...

still wanna see p.e. - the trailer hooked me - and i will, once a spare copy surfaces at the fbe.

Tanis said...

Wow. It really is interesting to see an analysis of a movie right down to the camera shots. You don't get enough of that anymore. (He did this, she was great, blah blah blah). I loved the way you compared it to Heat, because that was such an amazing film.

I saw P.E. twice in theatres, just to get a sense of it again, because, like you said, it was a bit of an assault to the senses. You couldn't see what was going on around Johnny. I'm a huge fan of his, and it was interesting to see your point. Though I don't understand why he doesn't do anything for you (because I think he's brilliant, and I think his performance as Dillinger is worth it to go see the movie), I do see your point.

Thanks for such an interesting review.