Public Enemies Review

| July 3, 2009 at 2:26 am
Public Enemies Review

Love at First Sight:
John Dillinger’s Charm

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a beautifully made film that follows John Dillinger’s short but exciting career. Johnny Depp brings Dillinger to life as the sometimes cocky, sometimes romantic, but never cold-blooded bank robber. Public Enemies steers clear of the gangster clichés and goes for historical accuracy.

Public Enemies is a Cinderella story, with Dillinger rescuing Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) from her boring and less-than-privileged life. Dillinger is Prince Charming as he robs banks, eludes the law, and swears himself to one girl; being played by Johnny Depp is what makes it perfect.

I appreciate the way Public Enemies is put together. The cliché dramatic music that I’ve come to expect during gunfights never pops up. Everything is frantic and loud in the surrounding silence. It’s different from what I’m accustomed to, and it works well for the style of realism in Public Enemies.

Johnny Depp brings Dillinger to life as the sometimes cocky, sometimes romantic, but never cold-blooded bank robber.

Myth and Reality:
Historical Accuracy in “Public Enemies”

Public Enemies is quite historically accurate. Artistic license is taken mostly with the order in which some events (especially deaths) occur. This doesn’t bother me: I understand that these changes add drama and thrills, two things I want my movies to have.

Johnny Depp avoids gangster clichés to portray a lovable, true-to-life John Dillinger. The people who knew Dillinger described him as friendly and good-natured, able to remain calm in an emergency and act quickly and rationally (Source). He was not an indiscriminate killer; he was accused of killing one police officer but never convicted. These traits are important: they’re a large part of the reason Dillinger was so popular.

Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis as steely and determined but doesn’t get the chance to do anything special with the role. The law is bumbling and corrupt, highlighting the moral ambiguities of the Great Depression era. I think the police and FBI are actually less incompetent in Public Enemies than they were in real life.

I truly appreciate the costumes and historical locations in the film. Michael Mann put a lot of effort into making Public Enemies feel authentic, and it shows. Besides, I love fedoras and long gabardine overcoats: the fact that Johnny Depp is in them is just a bonus.

Missed Opportunities:

Dillinger – Bank Robber, Robin Hood, Smooth Criminal

I was disappointed that Public Enemies didn’t contain more bank robberies. Instead, the robberies were few and fleeting. The trailers made a promise that the movie didn’t keep. It was like getting to take one bite of the most decadent chocolate mousse and then being cut off. I didn’t just want more: I ached for it.

Not only were the bank robberies short, but the details were completely omitted. John Dillinger isn’t just famous for robbing banks: he’s famous for how he robbed them.

Dillinger and his gang used cunning ruses to case potential targets and assess security systems, like when Dillinger would pose as an alarm system salesman. And he and his gang are celebrated for pretending to be from Hollywood researching a bank robbery scene while they actually robbed the bank. They also posed as tourists to scope out police arsenals: that’s right, they stole their guns, ammunition, and bullet-proof vests from the police.

Public Enemies with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

John Dillinger’s sly intelligence is hinted at in Public Enemies—”They ain’t tough enough, smart enough or fast enough. I can hit any bank I want, any time. They got to be at every bank, all the time.”—but never truly utilized.

The Focus on Billie Frechette Falters


I don’t agree with all the omissions. When Billie is tortured for information, the law crosses the line and becomes truly villainous. Everyone wants to see Dillinger rescue the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

When Billie was arrested, Dillinger “cried like a baby” (Source). Billie wrote him a letter pleading with him not to try to rescue her for fear he’d be killed. What’s not shown is that Dillinger refused to accept this and checked out the federal prison where Billie was being held. It was then that he (reluctantly) accepted any escape attempt would be impossible.

Since Public Enemies focuses more on romance than on bank robbing, this omission seems like a big one. Dillinger, who orchestrated previous prison escapes, doesn’t even try to break out the girl he’s crazy in love with? No, it felt like something was missing.


The Bottom Line:
Is “Public Enemies” Worth Seeing?

I’m glad I saw Public Enemies and I definitely recommend it. The movie is not only entertaining but also surprisingly accurate, meaning the humor, the charm, and the moral ambiguities of John Dillinger and his story remain intact.

Just make sure you go in with the understanding that Public Enemies is not as action-packed as the trailers suggest. John Dillinger was a bank robber, but the film is unfortunately lacking in bank robberies. I enjoyed Public Enemies, but it has its flaws—there is just too much left out.

Public Enemies is a Cinderella story, with Dillinger rescuing Billie Frechette from her boring and less-than-privileged life.

I love Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. Dillinger is so often portrayed as a cold-blooded killer even though that was never the case. Thankfully, Public Enemies steers clear of such banked-on inaccuracies. Dillinger isn’t just a gangster or a bank robber: he’s human, and that’s how I like my antiheroes.

This summer is filled with movies with so little substance it’s insulting: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, J.J Abrams’s Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. Thankfully, Public Enemies is here to give us back what we’ve been missing: an actual story, good acting, and true flair.

More About “Public Enemies”:
Johnny Depp Interviews & Historical Accuracy

The New Deal Typeface

Movie Reviews and Info

John Dillinger History

Related Posts


6 Comments Leave a Comment


    [...] such as Venus Versus Virus Volume 1 and Volume 2, I suggest you wander over to see rycz’s recent review of Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. rycz breaks down Michael Mann’s Depression Era [...]


    I’m sorry, but this film is not accurate at all. Dillinger is made out to be a hero, the last of the outlaws. This is simply not the case. He was killed in July of 1934, however it was a month later that accomplice Homer Van Meter was killed, executed by Minnesota police. Pretty Boy Flloyd did not die until later that year, he was not actually shot by Purvis, and when wounded was possibbly executed at the orders of Purvis. The final outlaw to die was George Nelson in November of that year, in a massive gun battle with FBI agents.

    Simple research into the lives of these people shows the film is littered with inaccuracies. Purvis was demoted from his role of leading the investigation and the ‘sharpshooters’ he requested in the movie were actually forced upon him due to his constant failings. Also, the little bohemia disaster occured before the failed robbery with Nelson, chronolgy and truth are not important to the film. In fact, drama and convenience are put much more highly than anything else in this movie. Entertaining action scenes but a superficial look at Dillinger’s love live, countless chances missed and a horribly distorted view of everthing that went on.

    This could have been the best movie ever made but instead the chance was wasted. I wish I could have written it, I am certain that the story is almost guarunteed to entertain regardless of the movie, but Mann had the budjet to make this a legendary film. A chance which he did not take.

    August 2, 2009 | Link

    I agree with you that this movie is disappointing; it had a chance to be great but wasted it.

    You are right that this film takes a lot of liberties with the time line of events (which I admitted in my review). John Dillinger is the last man standing in Public Enemies, and while that’s inaccurate I understand why they did it: John Dillinger is the star of the movie, and people expect loose ends to be tied up by the time the credits roll.

    I did also mention that “the police and FBI are actually less incompetent in Public Enemies than they were in real life.” Since Public Enemies is a movie and not a documentary, an identifiable antagonist is needed, and that’s the role Purvis plays. Purvis screwed up a lot more in real life than he does in the movie, but a totally incompetent G-Man is an uninteresting match against a cunning bank robber.

    So, all in all, I agree and disagree with you at the same time. Public Enemies is nowhere near as great as it could have been. If I were comparing this to a documentary, then it would be horribly inaccurate, but it’s a Hollywood production and it needs fictionalization to streamline events and create tension. Important details like John Dillinger’s charming personality and the FBI’s immoral tactics are historically accurate, and these aspects have more impact in a movie than the order of events.

    I recommend reading “‘Public Enemies’ No. 1 (in historical accuracy, writer says),” where the author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, Bryan Burrough, talks about this and other gangster movies.

    rycz designsrycz designs
    August 3, 2009 | Link

    I agree with what you say and do see Michael Mann’s reasoning, but the problem with distorting history so much is that the majority of people take it as fact after they see the movie.

    For instance, you picked up on the way the comical scoping out of banks and the hollywood story they used one time were omitted. But certain other aspects were totally overlooked. Nelson still died in a massive hail of bullets, but it took 17 shots to down him and he killed further officers, including Purvis’ replacement, Samuel COwley in his final battle.

    Also, if you look, in mid1934, after numerous jailbreaks, the government seemed to prefer the criminals dead rather than alive. The most recent evidence suggests that Dillinger fell and was shot while prone on the ground, which suggests execution without trial. The same is claimed of pretty boy floyd. Homer Van Meter is innocuously killed in the film when he was in fact abushed by four policemen and even had some of fingers shot off, he had dozens of bullet wounds. ‘Probasco’ an unmentioned associate of Dillinger who ACTUALLY helped him hide out in his last days was thrown from the top of FBI headquarters. Evidence suggests the cost of policing this guys and the lives they took was getting out of hand and the government executed them without a jury.

    The fact MAkley and Pierpont just disappear from the story is also a little stupid, considering tehy tried to break out of jail again with clarke. Clarke retreated back to his sell mid-escape since he had not recieved a death sentence and the other two were killed in a brutal shootout.

    These are missed tricks in my opinion to shed a different, possibly truer and unadressed light on the story.

    I also found the love story to be very innacurate and just a hook for the romantics. Frechette and Dillinger were renowned for public arguements and once she was arrested he actually met a new girl named ‘Polly Hamilton’ and when he was killed, he had a pocket watch with HER picture in it. Not Frechette’s. Another stupid anachronism is that in the gang’s final robbery, it is largely agreed that Pretty Boy Floyd was part of the gang, but since he had died 90 minutes previous this became impossible. Also, Edward Shouse comes to him to plan one of the last jobs, when in fact he was in prison from 1933. Also he was kicked out of the gang for trying to hit on Billie Frechette. Walter Diedrich actually escaped Michigan City but was rearrested a few months later.

    I understand what you say in the film’s defence and do agree with certain aspects of the arguement. Also, the review is quite a good one, but I feel that such a bredth of inaccuracy takes alot of exciting elements of the initial story and substitutes them for endearing character moments. I know u say Babyface Nelson is depicted as evil, but this guy was something else. They all killed to ensure their freedom, I mean Homer Van Meter was responsible for numerous killings for instance. The gangsters are just a little too clean cut and their desperation for money and freedom in not depicted well since the director was too concerned about how cool they look in a fedora, a suit and wielding a thompson.

    The hero doesn’t always have to die last, and what is wrong with a montage, perhaps of the last days of the remaining crew after Dillinger is slain. In my opinion, the reason Van Meter and Nelson die in such a way is to give Purvis the credit for it. When in actually fact he achieved very little, Samuel COwley should definitely have featured more prominently.

    As you can see, I am quite passionate about the subject and did appreciate some of Mann’s reasons, but they were simply to create a typical hollywood formula, and that is a clichéd approach to take and disappointing to see a director with so much financial backing and opportunity take such a lazy and conventional approach to one of the greatest stories of all time.

    August 3, 2009 | Link

    I actually saw Public Enemies with a friend and his mom. I left the theatre heartbroken at the lack of bank robberies (really, heartbroken), but his mom left the theatre annoyed; she thought the movie demonized Hoover and the FBI. She grew up in a different atmosphere than today, one where Hoover was a hero. I can’t imagine what her response would’ve been like if the FBI had been portrayed even more negatively.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, I would’ve preferred to see the events you mention over the at times ridiculously fairy-tale-like romance. What my friend’s mom would find offensive, I find interesting, but Hollywood has to take both points of view into account. They walk a fine line, trying to appease both parties, but unfortunately it often leads to results like this: a mediocre movie full of wasted potential.

    Another problem is, where you and I would base our story on history, I think Hollywood directors take their ‘vision’ and then sprinkle in some historical facts. Public Enemies suffers from this syndrome: the romance took precedence, and Michael Mann included historical truths where it was convenient. But at least Public Enemies included as much truth as it did; its predecessors were much less accurate.

    In the end, though, this movie would probably have been a lot better if someone like you had worked on it; you wouldn’t pull your punches.

    rycz designsrycz designs
    August 3, 2009 | Link

    Michael Mann, who used to compete in cobamt pistol matches, is seriously into guns and choreographs a gunfight better than anyone else–or, at least, anyone else since Peckinpaugh died. What I remember from Thief, Heat, and Collateral are the gunfights; the trouble is, everything between them was mediocre. Mann just can’t seem to direct actors in such a way that you buy them as real people. It’s as if real people don’t interest him much, he prefers cool archetypes who strike poses. The Jamie Foxx-Tom Cruise storyline in Collateral was utter drek, but the gunfights were fantastic!

    December 25, 2015 | Link

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