On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part I: Charles Winstead, Mann’s Man
This is the first essay in a three-part series on Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES, written mainly over the summer and early fall of 2009. Part One discusses ENEMIES’ role as a thoroughly “Mannian” work, completely at home in his filmography and rife with his familiar themes, while pushing them into a more emotionally tumultuous direction. Part Two focuses on the film as evidence that Mann is engaging with his audiences as direct participants. Part Three examines PUBLIC ENEMIES’ relationship to and embodiment of transcendental style.
PUBLIC ENEMIES is a curious beast. Billed as a big-budget period film starring movie idol Johnny Depp, Michael Mann’s latest may be the first Hollywood film to spend great amounts of time and money focusing on a minor character who says little and doesn’t make an entrance during the first third of the plot. Just as COLLATERAL was the “Tom Cruise as bad guy flick” that wound up more memorable for Jamie Foxx’s breakout performance, PUBLIC ENEMIES is supposed to be about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) on the run from G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). And it does an admirable job of following this thread, with all of the fury that a Hollywood production may bring to bear. The only problem lies in the realization that this cat-and-mouse backbone is all surface games, a bullet-riddled vehicle that hides the key to this puzzle in plain sight.
The name of this key is Charles Winstead, played here by veteran actor Stephen Lang. The film is well under way by the time he makes his curiously staged entrance: the camera films his shoes stepping off of a train, the sort of shot that’s been used in too many films to immediately identify a character as some sort of badass. The camera booms up to reveal Winstead surveying the platform with icy blue eyes, flanked by a couple of black-coated, hard-faced goons (one of whom, by the way, is a silent Matt Craven, who I wish would return to larger roles). Surrounded by steam, grim expressions firmly in place, they are angels of death and Winstead is their Michael: humorless, professional, and deadly. In PUBLIC ENEMIES, they are the quintessential “Mann Men” – the driven, autonomous, unyielding types who get the job done.
That PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t place its true Mann men as the main characters is one of the greater curiosities of this rich film, and one of the departures from Mann’s established storytelling style (though as we shall see, it’s not so much a departure as an augmentation). While PUBLIC ENEMIES covers much of the same ground as previous Mann fare, it signals an evolution in the way this fascinating auteur explores his most recurrent themes, and for my money, confirms that Mann is the most interesting American director working today.
Much has been written and said about Mann’s technical choices for PUBLIC ENEMIES. It is not my intention to spend too much time discussing those decisions, except as they relate to my analysis of Mann’s thematic development. Certainly, I think Mann’s artistic direction here is as strong as anything else he has made, and, as expected, he succeeds in presenting a picture charged with a personal energy generally lacking in Hollywood cinema. Shooting hand held offers a special freedom to the gifted director, and Mann continues to develop the loose visual aesthetic that first appeared in THE INSIDER. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER, and unlike so many of his younger peers (cough, Peter Berg), Mann uses his powers for good: his period setting jumps to life with the added spontaneity of the shaky-cam, placing the audience as participants in the onscreen drama. PUBLIC ENEMIES’ aesthetic demonstrates the difference between a genuinely living film and a film trying to feel alive.*
Thematically, PUBLIC ENEMIES is difficult to pin down. Even after two viewings and many hours spent thinking on it, I find it to be an unusually slippery fish. Michael Mann does not make simple films, and PUBLIC ENEMIES does not disappoint in complexity, but the collision of familiar Mann themes and more rote, inscrutable choices makes for a tough nut. There is a lot going on in PUBLIC ENEMIES; it’s more richly dense than MIAMI VICE and less telegraphed than COLLATERAL or THE INSIDER. On the surface, it seems to be closest in lineage to HEAT, but I expect that’s more a case of Mann indulging his essential themes, which were so brilliantly encapsulated and defined in HEAT.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I believe Charles Winstead is the Rosetta stone to this puzzle, especially relating to how he illustrates Mannian philosophy. That he is the most important character in the film doesn’t negate the work of the leads, which provides the framework for Winstead to unlock the door. To fully appreciate how Mann uses Winstead, we’ll have to take a quick look at this director’s major themes in his previous works.
One of Mann’s recurring themes involves the importance of holding to some sort of personal code. Mann’s men are often set up with a deeply engrained body of rules for themselves that they use to ensure high quality results from their work. Neil MacCauley, from HEAT, famously states he must have no attachments or commitments that he could not walk way from in 30 seconds if he felt the heat coming around the corner; Vincent, the hitman in COLLATERAL, spouts his sociopathic philosophy to justify his murdering: “I didn’t kill him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And because Mann men are always consummate professionals and perfectionists, they need their work to define their very beings. When the code is broken, Mann doesn’t punish the man, so much as he leaves him to his fate. PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t feature much explicit mention of the codes of John Dillinger or Melvin Purvis, but it is soaked in the ramifications of ignoring such systems, whether by disobedience or by the lack of owning one to begin with.
We get the sense that John Dillinger is a gentlemanly criminal, who treats his hostages relatively well once they’ve served their purpose. He lacks the psychotic cruelty of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), which alone earns some of our sympathy. His loyalty to main squeeze Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is apparent, but Mann doesn’t dwell on it long enough to make it especially touching. Other than these brief glimpses, there is little to indicate a larger code by which Dillinger lives. He drifts from job to job, floating through life in the present, admitting, “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.” As the film draws to its conclusion, the sense of Dillinger’s dithering becomes stronger. Will he go to Cuba or Brazil? Does he really want to do the train job? It’s hard to tell. His larger indecision is hinted at but never made obvious. He refuses the foresight and propulsive rules of MacCauley, and the improvisation of Vincent or Tubbs/Crockett. By the time he wanders into the Bureau’s office, perusing their operation with bemused interest, he seems to have reached a certain stasis. He doesn’t want to be caught, but he doesn’t want to pursue the action that would certainly spare him. Outside of the Biograph Theatre he drifts once too far, and meets his end.
Melvin Purvis is largely cut from the same cloth, albeit with justice as his goal, not personal thrills or profit. In his introduction, he is the consummate lawman: dedicated to following the law, unafraid to use violence if necessary. He doesn’t mean to kill Pretty Boy Floyd, and his disappointment in killing the criminal is subtly conveyed by Bale. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) congratulates Purvis on the kill, an accolade that Purvis seems reluctant to accept. As Dillinger lacks a binding code, so does Purvis when he accepts Hoover’s assignment to hunt down Dillinger. The earnest agent spends the rest of the film serving two masters: Hoover with his image and administrative concerns, and the actual mission. Mannian codes require unswerving devotion in order to yield fruit or salvation; Purvis, alas, divides his energies between the two and fails. This is foreshadowed and summarized in a telephone conversation between Hoover and Purvis: the agent requests the assistance of hardened Southern agents, men who know how to hunt and kill. Hoover resists at first, cajoling Purvis like a petulant child, but Purvis persists. It is perhaps his only true victory in the film, a moment when he throws all allegiance to one cause – the mission – and is rewarded. Despite this achievement, Purvis remains caught between these forces for the duration of the film. Purvis may be driven, and he may be skilled, but he lacks the autonomy that defines the most successful Mann men.
What makes Melvin such a tragic figure, and injects PUBLIC ENEMIES with deeply felt pathos, is the fact that Purvis is a smart, capable agent defeated by a thousand paper cuts to his focus. The tragedy lies in his awareness of his own ineffectiveness, crystallized in the moments when he watches his men die at the hands of Baby Face Nelson. His slaughter of Nelson is a dark moment when law enforcement becomes personal gratification, and yet Mann still finds a way to twist the screw into Melvin’s stomach through denying him the satisfaction of hearing Nelson’s last words. All he gets is a gust of breath, and silent death.
Enter Charles Winstead. He doesn’t get much screen time, but Mann and Lang make the most of the character’s presence, and he becomes the Mannian model for the picture. Despite being underneath Purvis’ command, he commands a respect and autonomy all of his own. It is clear that he only follows orders because he chooses to do so. When Dillinger escapes the Little Bohemia lodge, it is Winstead and his fellow ranger who track down the fleeing criminals. During this sequence, Mann implements a rare slow-motion shot: Winstead does a dramatic roll, shotgun in hand, and comes up firing. It’s the most instantly iconographic action moment to be found in the film, and it’s curiously emphasized by a filmmaker who uses slow motion as an identification device in his films (eg. THE INSIDER’s mirror treatment of Wigand and Bergman leaving their jobs). Mann’s emphasis of Winstead’s action only strengthens his support for the aging lawman.
Winstead’s devotion to a code – and importance as a Mann man – can be inferred by his swift actions, and the way Mann focuses on these actions. His purposeful pursuit in the forest, his assured restraint of a torturing agent, and his unflapping attack on Dillinger (preceded by his own planning of position) cements him as a highly individualistic, professional perfectionist: a Mann’s man, if ever there was one. He knows the power of violence, wields it when necessary, and moderates his actions for each situation.
All of these Mannian qualities prepare Winstead for the enviable position of being Dillinger’s assassin, and more importantly, for the subsequent awarding of the highest possible honor in a Mann film: the intimacy of exclusively knowing one’s enemy in his last moments. The peaceful bond between foes upon the brink of death is one of Mann’s distinctive marks (most noticeably depicted in HEAT) and it is the thematic intersection and grail of PUBLIC ENEMIES. That Winstead alone bears witness to Dillinger’s final words endows him with a sort of holy experience; that Purvis is too late to partake in the collection of Dillinger’s last words introduces an overtly tragic tone, further deepened by Winstead’s rebuffing of the late-comer. The overall effect of these events effectively pushes Mann’s familiar dying vigil scene into an even more complex (and violent) tornado of emotion than has previously been evoked in a Mann ending. Sorrow and satisfaction flow mingled down, finding their focal point in Purvis. The loss of respect (if ever there was any to begin with) is shattering, one more blow to a man already crushed by his impotence as a lawman. Purvis witnessed Floyd’s last words; he went through the rite, even if they were curses spat from a defiant tongue. But his own victory over Nelson was tainted by the gangster’s wordless exit, denying that truly Mannian closure provided by a shared experience of death. And in Dillinger’s case, despite all his effort, Purvis failed to finish the job himself and bear witness to the final moments of a legend. In Mann’s world, there is no worse damnation.
*A truly useful comparison of effective hand-held styles may be made between THE HURT LOCKER (2008, Bigelow) and THE KINGDOM (2007, Berg), which deal with similar subject matter and aesthetic form, but achieve vastly different results: LOCKER proves to be immersive and engaging in its camera’s freedom, while THE KINGDOM is impeded by its shaky shots. A more relevant but weaker comparison may be made between PUBLIC ENEMIES and sections of J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK: Mann could establish screen geography through hand-held in his sleep, while Abrams seems confused by his own coverage and works to disorient the audience, when he isn’t busy reminding us that the camera is being held by someone external to his film’s world.