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.
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.
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
- ‘Public Enemies’ No. 1 (in historical accuracy, writer says)
- Johnny Depp interview for Public Enemies
- Johnny Depp Talks Public Enemies, Pirates 4, Alice In Wonderland And More
The New Deal Typeface
Movie Reviews and Info
- Oakland man clothing consultant for ‘Public Enemies’
- The Real John Dillinger: Is Public Enemies historically accurate?
- Exclusive: Public Enemies Filming Footage
- Movie Review: PUBLIC ENEMIES
- Johnny Depp claims Dillinger’s ghost watched him work
John Dillinger History
- John Dillinger: Bank Robber or Robin Hood?
- Felonious and Urbane, Dillinger Still Charms
- Famous Cases: John Dillinger
- Don’t Call Us Molls: Women Of The John Dillinger Gang
- If you’re going to fete Dillinger, call this man first