Michael Mann’s latest film, Public Enemies, pits two serious, brooding, and exacting minds against each other—one, Melvin Purvis, a tight-lipped lawman with justice on the brain, the other, John Dillinger, a likable bank robber that consistently eludes capture. The movie delivers on its promise of genre thrills, but in typical Mann fashion, there’s much more going on here than a simple series of action set pieces or even a documentary-style depiction of Purvis’s pursuit of Dillinger.
Unfortunately, Mann’s film has taken some heat for its many changes to the original historical material—major events are out of their historical, chronological order, Purvis comes across in the film as a better lawman than he actually was, and the cinematic Dillinger lacks the flair that he so readily showed during his crime spree. But these criticisms miss the point of Mann’s film. Were he attempting to offer a journalistically accurate record of events, he might be worth criticizing on these issues.
It seems clear though that Mann’s interest lies less in an accurate record of events and more in the presentation of two human beings whose similarities far outweigh their differences. Despite his criminal lifestyle, Dillinger was known to be a kind of heroic, Robin Hood figure, loved by the common man who saw in Dillinger someone sticking it to the greedy bankers. On the other side, Purivs had his own hero reputation, one that earned him the job of leading the chase for Dillinger in the first place. Yet when Mann looks at these two men, he sees a hero in neither of them—at least they’re not heroes in the way we’ve come to expect our heroes to act. No, Mann seems to want to show us a more personal and intimate—rather than mythic—side of this historical event. The subjective camera and the mumbled dialogue stand as two of the chief formal evidences of his intentions in this regard.
Early on in the film, the standard hero-villain narrative looks to be firmly in place. The first scenes of Dillinger and Purvis reveal their successes. Dillinger calmly breaks into prison so that he can turn around and break out the members of his gang still behind bars. The plan is exquisite, and while others go too far or a man gets shot, the plan results in Dillinger with most of his old gang back. Purvis also has a vivid, early success as he tracks down and calmly kills a fleeing Pretty Boy Floyd. He never flinches, even with bullets wildly flying in his direction. Purvis takes the lead, places himself in harm’s way before the other officers, and, like Dillinger, he gets the job done.
Both of these men seem to be coming from a firm position of strength, one that solidifies their role in society. They each know their role and fulfill it accordingly—Dillinger robs banks and Purvis chases him down. Each of these men operate based on ideals outside themselves. While Dillinger dreams of days in idyllic peace far from the towns of the upper Midwest, Purvis pursues that ever-present ideal of justice on behalf of the people.
The two men also have certain rules that bind or limit their work. Dillinger plans to achieve his goal without robbing banks with strangers or in desperation, while Purvis intends to catch Dillinger through every available legal means necessary. Though these two figures seem to embody their heroic roles fully, it’s in these rules or codes of behavior that the cracks in their heroism emerge. Neither can live up to the standards they’ve set for themselves, in part because both men are limited in their powers. Mann’s film shows us clearly that these men are not superheroes or demigods. They’re unable to marshal the power necessary to achieve their desired reality.
Dillinger starts losing people from his gang, either to prison or to death. Other supporters turn their backs on him. Dillinger can do nothing about either, too busy making sure he too doesn’t fall. For his part, Purvis, despite his modern methods of investigation, cannot capture and keep Dillinger in custody. He even has to take on another agent, a man more experienced in chasing the likes of Dillinger. These realities clearly illustrate both Dillinger’s and Purvis’ limitations and force them both to break their rules—Dillinger to work with strangers under desperation, and Purvis to bend immigration law to persuade an informant to work for him.
Both of these men fail to keep their respective codes. Both also fail to attain their ultimate goals. Dillinger doesn’t escape to his idyllic hideaway. Purvis fails to kill Dillinger. Mann’s film takes the traditional hero-villain narrative, places it in a historical crime genre, and instead of amping up the thrills and chills, he shows us the tragedy of the human condition: no matter how hard we try to live up to our standards of perfection, we fail.
We might be on the side of justice or the side of crime but at the end of the day we’re all human, so we all fail. In and of themselves, neither the pursuit of justice nor the pursuit of crime gets us closer to our goals. God help us.