The tension and beauty found in Michael Mann's best films are their spatial coherence and feel for color, atmosphere and location. He's a fairly contradictory artist, caught between opposite desires of being both an aesthete and anti-storyteller. By that, I mean he clearly relishes working in received forms, utilizing all the resources and more recently, the digital tools that implies. But he's always shown a Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges like affinity for the colorful outsiders and hucksters that populate the margins.
My favorite Mann pieces (his astounding television serial "Crime Story," Manhunter, Heat) are imbued with an inexorable logic and narrative grace. The most common complaint against Mann is that the pieces rarely add up to a complete or gripping whole. His grasp of the intuitive, elastic qualities of the bit or secondary player is one of his great talents. My only personal dealing with him touched on that very foundation. In 1990 I was writing a profile of the actor Ted Levine, on the verge of his breakout role as the sexually conflicted serial killer in Jonathan Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation, The Silence of the Lambs.
Mann, who grew up in Chicago, effectively launched Levine, a Chicago-based theater actor, by casting him as the sinister, funny and daring gangster Frank in "Crime Story." (The character was based on a notorious Chicago gangster.) Furthermore, Mann's Manhunter was, of course, an adaptation of Harris' previous novel, Red Dragon, the work that introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter. To his credit, Mann always privileged the idiosyncratic and eccentric contributions of his actors. Levine's character in "Crime Story" was a psychopath, but he had the soul of a rockabilly artist. Levine ended up becoming a critical player in Mann's stock company.
The poetry of the commonplace, a feeling for a frustrated artist, of cops and killers in flight from their own feelings, their damaged masculinity, their stunted, inarticulate grappling with women, yokes together much of Mann's work. He works in large budgets with top actors and superb technicians, but his sensibility, at least in his best work, is that of the "termite artist," as drawn by the great critic Manny Farber in his seminal 1962 piece: "White Elephant Art versus Termite Art."
Farber said: "The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its ways through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement."
Mann's new film, Public Enemies, is not a masterpiece, but it succeeds at playing to the director's strengths. As storytelling, it's errant and loose-limbed, breezy, engaging and dynamic if also very limited. Visually, the movie ricochets between the terrifying and the exalted. (Manohla Dargis picked up on this in her perceptive piece.) The emotion is the movement. In the first electrifying though somber sequence, the opening jail break, an escaping inmate is shot, his body dragged by the undercarriage of the car that suddenly punctures the excitement and thrill.
In the second movement that unfolds in the first depicted robbery, Mann tracks John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) jutting through the marbled floor interior of a architecturally imposing bank that ends with Depp piercing floating through space to maneuver past a physical obstacle. It's a kinetic, musical flourish that underlines Dillinger's dexterity and nimbleness. Mann starts the shot from below, and the grace, poise and magnetism is both elliptical and deeply sensual. In memory, it appears to hold forever, but in fact it's only momentary, a fragment of time.
Mann imports the same structure from "Crime Story" and Heat of the dialectical arrangement of the cops and gangsters paired to a central, elemental conflict of personalities: Dillinger and G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Again, it's the secondary and bit players that make an impression. I didn't realize until the credits Channing Tatum played Pretty Boy Floyd. His scene is brief though potent, a brash, ravishing and perfect body ravaged by a government-issued instrument of death.
The movie opens with the title card: "1933." It's probably not coincidental the fame and cultural influence of Dillinger, shown here as a thrill seeker, a lover of movies, soared at the moment the repressive standards and production code severely limited what kind of social, sexual and political transgressions could be dramatized at the movies.
Death is almost always a substitute for sex. That's natural because Mann has always been more comfortable with violence than sex. The corollary is that casting always trumps character. The sensational French actress Marion Cotillard plays Billie Frechette, the French/Native American coat check girl that Dillinger romanced. She isn't given a lot to do, but her combination of toughness, wariness and vulnerability achieve a cumulative emotional power and prickly force. As she's bartered essentially to gain access to Dillinger, her resolve and independence yields the ultimate sacrifice, a solitary aloneness.
Finally, the emotional discordance a lot of people feel about the film is almost certainly a function of high definition video. As a purist who believes in the beauty of mise en scene, I prefer film. But I'm also drawn to new styles and forms of inquiry. My big problem with video is not with the image but the fact so few filmmakers appear willing or able to play off the formal distinctions of the two quite different photographic formats. One thing my friend Ben Kenigsberg and I arrived at independently was that Public Enemies felt like a Lars von Trier movie. It's not just the visual severity, but the defamiliarizing of the landscape central to several Dogma-inflected works ostensibly set in a more imagined than realistically conceived "Amerika" (Dancer in the Dark, Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy).
Anne Thompson and Karina Longworth both make compelling arguments for why the format is fundamentally off. The coolness of the medium provides for some flat out strange incongruities. For instance, a scene supposedly set at a Southern dog racetrack conjures a bleak, wintry Florida landscape.
For some of my objections, I will venture the velvety textures and poetry of the nighthawk cinematography is something to behold. The mobility and spontaneity of the form kicks in during the movie's most spellbinding moment, the extended shootout of Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger and their gang against the government operatives at a hideout deep inside the Wisconsin woods. (Realizing he's overmatched, Purvis recruits a couple of viciously competent law officers from Texas and Oklahoma.)
The sequence equals the same sustained energy of the set piece from Heat, except here the location is dark, cramped and enclosed. The color, the gradations of black, abstracts the material, conveying a strange, otherworldliness aspect, but it also superimposes over the entire sequence a profound sense of doom and malice from which no escape seems possible.
Public Enemies has some dead space and peculiar moments. Mann's penchant for symmetrical characterizations is hurt by the too emphatic way he illustrates one cop's dark brilliance (Stephen Lang) against another's thuggish incompetence (Adam Mucci). The movie's tragic hero is not Dillinger but Purvis, a gifted, unorthodox lawman whose considerable achievements were obliterated by the singularly unpleasant and pathologically bent J. Edgar Hoover (well played in the movie by Billy Crudup).
So far, of the reviews I’ve looked at, they’re fairly polarizing. (A friend of mine said, as the credits started: "This is a really bad movie.") Mann is limited by a death foretold. Fortunately, Public Enemies lives and breathes in the margins.