The Feds try to take down notorious American gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd during a booming crime wave in the 1930s.
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Being a true criminal is not what you see in the movies and especially not what you see in PUBLIC ENEMIES. And I guess that's sort of Writer/Director Michael Mann's point in this film. Sort of. But why didn't he go all the way?
Say you're a criminal and you want to rob a bank or even kill someone. The smart criminal and good criminal robs that bank 100 miles away. Or kills that person as they slip on a banana peel walking the streets and 'accidentally' die while you are still in bed sleeping. That's what being a good criminal is all about. To work behind the scenes and 'organize' things to happen while you leave no fingerprints or any trace of your existence.
John Dillinger suffered what many of us suffer - EGO. His inner ego got the best of him because he wanted people to know who he was. He was a sexy story for the papers as he was the man who could rob banks in seconds flat. But he failed criminal rule #1. People knew who he was.
So the system (government) jumps on a person like this because they are in the papers and society thinks these are the true bad people. But Dillinger was just a smalltime thief. The people thought he was one of the biggest criminals in the world because that's what the media told them. But while he robbed banks on a monthly basis for relative peanuts, the real criminals were making millions. And no one knew who they were.
In this primal time in mankind, perception and a good story is everything. And a good story for the real criminals is the greatest diversion in the world because people are worried about the wrong issues. You see politicians use this practice all the time. Set up a story that is 'sexy' in nature and you'll know the media and the people will eat it up while they do what they really want to do as no one is paying attention. Does abortion or gay rights really mean anything in the big picture of our life? No, but they are great stories to tell and are great diversions.
So Dillinger was just a fraud that people ate up. Kind of like the Paris Hilton of today.
The law and J. Edgar Hoover wanted him caught because perception is everything. They catch him and society thinks they are an efficient bunch. All the while the real criminals sink themselves deeper into society and begin to corrupt things. The 1930s were really a time for a lot of change and basically setting up a whole new way of administration. When something is so new, there are always going to be a lot of viruses around waiting to corrupt things. Think of your computer. But the law going after Dillinger and bypassing the real criminals would be like us worrying about the fly on our shoulder while we are in a cage with a lion who wants to eat us. That's how small Dillinger really was in the grand scheme of things.
So Michael Mann does touch on some of these fascinating issues in PUBLIC ENEMIES but he seems to have fallen in love with John Dillinger just like the public did. So we watch this man fall in love, escape from prison a couple of times, rob some banks and run from the law for 2+ hours. And I have to ask: What was the point of this film? Can someone reply and really tell me?
Producer Kim Todd, one of our past moderators for our screenplay festival once said that many writers fail because they fall in love with their main character too much and therefore don't want to write them into tough situations and/or they want to put them on a pedestal without any warrant. That's what I feel Michael Mann did with his main character in Public Enemies.
Dillinger's story is more interesting in the behind the scenes situations. Why did Hoover and his team spend so much time and money on him? Perception and ego --- the downfall of man.
Mann set out to tell that story and many moments in the film are about this theme. But then he leaves his initial story and goes into the world of Dillinger himself. A world that is pretty sad. Whoopie do da day. The man robbed some banks. That fact does not justify a feature film made about him. But the world he lived in at the time does. Mann took to Dillinger's charm and was manipulated by him 75 years after he died.
Public Enemies had the makings of a great tale of the 20th century that is relevant to today's times. We didn't get it and I'm sad about it. There's a great film in here and I know Mann is the one to make it. He just didn't make it this time around.