We went to see Public Enemies last night. The movie claims to be "based on" the book of the same name by Bryan Burroughs who, by the way, had something to do with this getting this film made. I wonder if he still is glad his name is on it. (I keep thinking about what Robert Wuhl had to say about movies "based on" a true story) Don't get me wrong. this isn't a bad movie. But if you expect to learn anything about John Dillinger, the 1973 movie with Warren Oates and Ben Johnson is almost as good.
The movie is set up along the lines of Heat - hardly surprising since Michael Mann directed both films - with Melvin Purvis being Dillinger's protagonist. In all the reviews I've read, Christian Bale takes a lot of heat but I don't think the fault is his. First off, he is badly miscast, which is not his fault. Melvin Purvis was a short, dapper, ladies man (Well, they got the last part right). Secondly, the script has Purvis being a hard-edged, do-anything-to-get-the-job done sort of a guy. The script credits Purvis with a lot more competency than he had. But what are you supposed to do when the script, as your first appearance on the screen, calls for your character to shoot Pretty Boy Floyd (thereby establishing your reputation as a gangster hunter), when he was actually shot five months after Dillinger was assassinated? Historically speaking, it's pretty much downhill from there.
The movie does occasionally hit some historically accurate marks, though. Although they screw up how Dillinger got captured, his return to Indiana, his press conference, and his escape from jail are pretty much right on. The first half of the actual shootout at The Bohemia Lodge is also pretty much right on (although the events leading up to it is pure crapola), including the fact that it was actually shot at the real Bohemia Lodge. But once the boys go out the windows, so does any history involved (The script calls for Purvis to kill Baby Face Nelson just after the escape; Nelson was killed six months after Dillinger and Purvis had nothing to do with it).
I confess that I have mixed feelings about Depp as Dillinger. People back then looked old for their years, compared to today, and Depp simply looks to young. And I think his cockiness is the type that belongs more to gangster movies than to actual gangsters of the day (although the former did influence the latter). But every once in awhile, Depp gets it dead right. Marion Cotillard is well-cast as Billie Frechette and does a great job. The strength of this movie though, belongs to the supporting players. Stephen Graham is fabulous as Baby Face Nelson (and they have his part well-written, save for his death), Ed Bruce (who you won't recognize), Stephen Lang (as Charles Winstead, the only real pro among the Feds) who you also may not recognize, Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, and Peter Gerety as lawyer Louis Piquette (also well-written and well-played). Maybe it has something to do with the way these characters are written, which are all very true-to-life, but they make the movie.
Bottom line: See the movie (even better if you can see it for $4.75 a ticket, like we did). It's fun and you can take your wife/girlfriend and they won't be bored. But this is still, at heart, a 30's gangster film with the moral lessons removed. If you want to learn more about Dillinger, there are several books I can recommend.