The following is an excerpt from a longer review comparing "Public Enemies" with "Inglourious Basterds."
Unlike books, poetry, sculptures, and all that other stuff, movies exist in time. They give us the "feeling" of time better than any other artform. We can be made to feel time pass quickly, slowly, inevitably, excruciatingly.
The vogue in bad American blockbusters right now is to do away with time, to reduce everything to a fractured white noise of plot-pushing fragments. Time doesn't exist in any meaningful, adult way in "Transformers 2." So it's refreshing that one of the best movies of 2009 so far takes time very seriously.
"Public Enemies" is from Michael Mann, one of the few directors who actually use the quick-cutting, fragmentary style in an artful way. Time has always been important to his characters, specifically the passing of time, of time getting away, of there not being enough of it. Mann uses his lengthy run-times to this end. In "Heat," Robert De Niro's nightmare is about drowning, which both he and Al Pacino know means he's running out of time. In "Miami Vice," Colin Farrell and Gong Li debate how "time is luck" or "time is like gravity."
With one exception, I don't think Mann has ever used a flashback in any of his films, even in places when a flashback might make sense, like the reconstruction of crime scenes in "Manhunter" or "Heat." Point being: you can't go back. (The exception is the flashback montage that begins "Ali," a sequence so masterful that it's as if Mann said "I'm only gonna do one flashback ever, and it's gonna be great, and then I'm never doing it again." Like a good gambler, he walks away from the table after hitting the jackpot.)
So we come to "Public Enemies," in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvyn Purvis (Christian Bale) begin the movie as larger-than-life figures, supermen who make history, extending their masculine codes on the world and people around them, bending it to their will. Dillinger is a new breed of criminal, violent and efficient, who prompts the creation of the FBI, and Purvis is supposed to be the new breed of lawman, described by FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, hilarious) as "clean-cut young men of distinction" (Roger Ebert summarizes Hoover's view of G-men essentially as "crime-fighting accountants").
Yet by the end of the movie they have (like Ali in "Ali") become – or been revealed as – signposts for history, not history's makers. Time leaves Dillinger behind: a daring, violent bank robbery that might take days or weeks for him to plan nets about as much money as the Chicago mafia gets everyday in its rooms of telegraphs and typewriters. The mafia outgrows and betrays him.
"Public Enemies" implies that Purvis, who eventually took his own life, is not Dillinger's ubermensch counterpart like Pacino / De Niro in "Heat," but takes his own life from an inability to find a place for himself in changing times. While certainly a hardass dedicated to "running Dillinger down," he can't decide if he's going to use the scientific or brutal methods Hoover alternately recommends, if he's going to beat suspects like his younger cohorts, or if he's going to be like the older lawmen he brings in from Texas and New Mexico, who are probably ruthless sociopaths in their own right, but have a code about it. (To wit, they'll shoot you through the face, but listen to and carry out your dying wish, too.)
Mann's visual strategy is a camcorder in a time machine. Far from the high gloss of De Palma's fun "The Untouchables," "Public Enemies" is a gritty, grainy, handheld, lived-in world of blown-out light sources and orange skin. We get Edward Hopper locations, sometimes reduced to abstractions by digital grain (a night drive on a forest road is reduced to two blobs or orange cutting through the blackness). No Mann movie since "Ali" has had opening credits; "Public Enemies" hits the ground running with a jailbreak and doesn't stop.
Charges that the movie makes Dillinger "charming" baffle me. Johnny Depp plays him as a sociopath through and through, who loves robbing banks. He loves the challenge, the strategy, the thrill, the risk, and that it takes all his mental and physical resources to do the job right. His famous Robin Hood relationship with the public is, to him, just a means to an end. He may be psychologically unable to care about anyone but himself, and he certainly doesn't care about something as abstract as "the public." When his friends die, he may only be feeling the loss of their company to himself.
Dillinger's in a race with – you got it – time, to live as much life as possible, as hard as possible, as fast as possible. If we like him, it's because he's so motivated, and he's doing the best he can with being crazy. If he'd been born a decade later he would have probably distinguished himself in WWII.