Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hometown cinema, with spoilers

Public Enemies last night (a title so ripe for misspelling it makes me blush) that's 3 movies, at the theater, within a few weeks. whoa. That hasn't happened since Sonny Boy Cate Junior arrived.
But this movie was filmed in and around my hometown at the time, so I almost had to go, right? Just to point out all the local landmarks I recognized? "Hey, that's the bank my cousin got married in!"

Plus, Johnny Depp.

And Billy Crudup, looking oddly puffy about the neck and head as good 'ol J. Edgar.
So what did I think? It played a bit like a flashier version of the History Channel's Eighteen Months of Mayhem, hitting all the notable plot points- Dillinger's '33 jail break, his association with Babyface Nelson, various bank robberies, the shootout at Little Bohemia, etc. LOTS of gun fights, LOTS of gunshot wounds, LOTS of old-timey car chases, and at least 2 really great character dynamics that never got fully developed.

One, young J. Edgar Hoover trying to get a quirky little startup law enforcement agency called the FBI off the ground in the midst of the Depression and the country's greatest crime wave to date.
Second, the gangsters harboring and supporting Dillinger, who turned on him once they realized he was drawing too much interest in the escalation of criminal offense laws, which was bound to have an effect on all their illegal interstate commerce.

Both of those points were touched on and then sidelined in favor of the far less interesting John Dillinger/Billie Frechette romance, which in reality only lasted about 6 months, and seemed to be enhanced for the film to give John Dillinger a hidden, misunderstood heart of gold. Just overlook the fact that while Billie was arrested, beaten, and then incarcerated for aiding and abetting him, Dillinger was living in a brothel and taking prostitutes out on dates. That must just be part of the abusive Dillinger Charm that was strongly sold to the audience, but which I didn't really believe.

In fact, this film implies that Dillinger was so much of a folk hero in his day that his captor, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale in a fainter version of the Eliot Ness/ Al Capone dynamic of The Untouchables) is haunted for the rest of his days by his role in Dillinger's gruesome story.

In Public Enemies, Michael Mann seems to have tried to show a compassionate side to a very dark and violent individual, even implying that if only Dillinger hadn't been double crossed by a madam at the final turn, he would have made that last big score (in a bloodbath of a robbery, certainly) and he and Frechette would have lived out a blissful retirement somewhere in South America. Even in the film Dillinger himself doesn't seem to believe this scenario will play out, but he's pretty hopeful, for a cornered man with no other options.

More honestly, Dillinger was a thief and killer who captured the attention of desperate people in a desperate time, and suffered a deserved swift and brutal end for it. (Some strongly assert that Dillinger himself never killed anyone, or at least, he was never convicted of killing anyone, or that he killed one guy, and felt pretty bad about it, although this film never commits one way or the other on the issue, and he certainly shoots directly at a lot of people. Bad aim isn't analogous to a firm moral stance that shooting people is wrong.)
Also, in this alternate reality, the Depression seems to only be happening in one dilapidated farmhouse out in the pit of the Dust Bowl. The mostly deserted towns in Illinois and Wisconsin are full of architecturally stunning banks, dance halls and restaurants packed with patrons eating steak and wearing furs, and one or two homeless guys.

Many of the performances were outstanding, including Crudup as brash, cocky J. Edgar Hoover- I could have used more of that- Stephen Graham as the manic George "Babyface" Nelson, and Branka Katic as Anna Sage.
In the end it seems like that kind of movie that could have used just one more script revision. Pick a direction and go with it, because in film biographies, as in Harry Potter adaptations, you just can't tell the entire story in 3 hours or less.
If you want a historically accurate overview of Dillinger's crime spree, heavy on bullets and gore, then, three thumbs up. If you want a more insightful examining of an era, and how a handful of outlaws became cultural icons, then just pick up a good biography, or catch Eighteen Months of Mayham when it is replayed on cable.

4 comments:

MG Higgins said...

A wonderful, thorough review. How true that biographies don't always translate well into movies.

Electric Youth said...

Great review! I'm glad that your Mom let you go out. ;) I really want to see that movie - mainly for the location. Well, that and the fact that Johnny Depp is hot. I asked Patrick to give me a review after he saw it, but he failed. Yours is so much better anyway.

So, coming at the movie with the same thoughts/expectations as you - would you say I should pay eleven bucks to see it on the big screen...or pocket that and rent it in a few months?

Mary Witzl said...

That really is a good review. Hollywood always does this: they take a good story and make it so Disney-ish and impossibly romantic and gooey. It's as though they're convinced the truth won't sell. Personally, I'd have enjoyed seeing J Edgar Hoover gotten up as a transvestite, but I suppose that wasn't part of the story, truth or not.

Lily Cate said...

oh man, Mary, Billy Crudup is the slickest, funniest J. Edgar Hoover I've ever seen. Just from his few scenes, he really built that character (however inaccurate, I don't care, he was great!) I would have rather seen more of him.

I think there was an attempt to get some females up on screen- too often these types of stories are nothing but men because, well, in real life, the action involved a lot of men. Nice try, but the guys were more interesting this time.

Heidi- go ahead and Netflix this one. Or just buy the DVD, for the same price as 2 tickets and a snack!