Thursday, August 6, 2009

Michael Mann’s Dillinger Debacle

Every great director has at least one truly bad film in him, and Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s. It is not just a failure, but one of those movies in which the gap between its quality and its maker’s talent is so immense as to be nearly inexplicable. To be fair, it is possible that my expectations for Public Enemies, which chronicles the 1933 FBI manhunt for legendary Midwest bank robber John Dillinger, were unfairly high. But from the man who made Manhunter, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and the masterpiece Heat, a film this empty, dull, lifeless, and—most shocking of all—crudely made cannot be anything other than a major disappointment. This may not be fair, but it is a fact. We expect bad films from the likes of Brett Ratner. We expect great ones from Michael Mann. Such is the price of genius, and in Public Enemies, Mann pays it.

In all fairness, however, it must be admitted that Public Enemies is not just Mann’s failure. It is also another in a long line of equally inexplicable failures to successfully translate the myth of John Dillinger and his eventual demise to the screen. I use the term inexplicable because if the Dillinger legend is anything, it is unquestionably a great story. It has love, violence, friendship, irony, and death. It has a charismatic antihero and, in the person of straitlaced FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who led the manhunt, the stoic nemesis who eventually takes him down. It is a quintessentially American story featuring two classic American archetypes—the free-spirited outlaw and the upstanding sheriff—locked in a duel to the death in a world not unlike that of the Western but much more recognizably ours. In other words, it is a story that seems tailor-made for the movies. And yet, Hollywood has proven consistently incapable of doing it justice.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.