Michael Mann, since embracing the Viperstream HD camera (a system he helped develop) a few years back, has been the aesthetic innovator for non-celluloid filmmaking (and if you don't believe me, check out Collateral or the ridiculously underrated Miami Vice), and despite some initial concern that the HD look would draw viewers out of Public Enemies' 1930s setting, Mann finds that masterful balance (think what David Fincher did with Zodiac) between the medium and the message.
It's weird, because I've read several reviews of the film which make reference to security cameras and the television show Cops in analyzing the look of Public Enemies, as if sharply-photographed displays of crime are somehow proprietary to those grungy examples. Mann has always been a remarkable visual artist, and with this film, he continues to establish the aesthetic capabilities of HD cinematography.
Based on the true story of the legendary Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, Public Enemies serves up a classic American archetype (the antihero who cultivates a folk following while confounding authority) in a story that feels all too relevant given our own uncertain economic predicament. And it's in Mann's emphasis that we learn something rather fascinating about John Dillinger the man. He's a creature of routine- he has style, and verve, and he knows how to orchestrate things, but watching his bank robberies are amazing specifically because of the efficiency with which they are undertaken and executed. Dillinger brags that he can rob a bank in a minute and forty seconds flat, and Mann keeps to that timetable, avoiding fetishy extrapolations and cutting to the meat of the situation- it's glorious.
And Johnny Depp, at least momentarily free from his pirate obligations, plays John Dillinger and gets to the issues and uncertainties at the heart of American fame masterfully. He's great at what he does, understanding publicity and persona in an almost deconstructive manner. It's just sad when crime passes him by. As crime gets more organized and starts making its money on a nationwide scale, Dillinger's brand of hustling seems, well, quaint.
At the same time, though, the beginnings of what would eventually be the FBI is deciding to up its technological game as well, using wiretaps and torture and coordinating information in new and expansive ways. Under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, crying out for a spin-off film) and Chicago division head Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, with nary a Terminator in sight and gloriously alive), we see the beginnings of the cop/criminal escalations that are still with us today.
Like all Michael Mann films, this boils down to the continued isolation of a man just trying to do his job and uphold some kind of personal code. The Dillinger/Purvis duality is built out of contrasts, but we see in them an absolute commitment to their own paths. The drama is internal, inexorable, and we feel it continuously. No one can stage a siege like Mann, and the film's centerpiece is a late-night raid on a Wisconsin retreat. Hats cut through the night, gunsmoke clings to the ground like eldritch fog, and nothing burns brighter than muzzle flash, nothing darker than freshly spilled blood.