In a scene in Public Enemies—Michael Mann’s sprawling, unconventional, Depression-era crime epic—Chicago gangster Phil D’Andrea shows bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) a new mob-run betting operation. D’Andrea is played by John Ortiz, one of Mann’s good-luck charms. He says:
On October 23rd, you robbed a bank in Greencastle, Indiana. You got away with $74,802. You thought that was a big score? These phones make that every day. And it keeps getting made—day after day after day, a river of money, and it gets deeper and wider, week in and week out, month in and month out, flowing right to us.
Cue the next scene, a conversation between J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the federal agent tasked with catching Dillinger. Hoover—head of the BOI, which would be rechristened the FBI in 1935—says:
Create informants, Agent Purvis. The suspects are to be interrogated vigorously, grilled. No obsolete notions of sentimentality. We are in the modern age. We are making history. Take direct, expedient action. As they say in Italy these days, “Take off the white gloves!”
Mann is both a minimalist and a maximalist, which sounds paradoxical, but is in practice often thrilling. His borderline-mythic male loners—often framed against blank expanses of sea or sky—collide against a dense landscape of supporting characters, relationships, technologies, and information. Public Enemies, for instance, takes the public conflict between Dillinger and Purvis—archetypes of American popular imagination—and connects it to the rise of surveillance, telecommunications, modern banking, and fascism, producing something that often feels like a creation myth for the latter part of the 20th century.
It helps that Public Enemies doesn’t look like any movie ever made, aside from Mann’s own subsequent Blackhat. It’s shot largely on location in a nervy, abstracted off-the-cuff digital style, which has the effect of making everything seem at once immediate and totally unfamiliar—never more dazzlingly than during the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, one of the most visceral depictions of gunfire to ever grace a screen.
Availability: Public Enemies is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.