His latest, Public Enemies has been hailed, derided, and ignored, all with seemingly equal vigor. A review in TV Guide said,
"For people who loved Heat, this was a tour de force."I loved Heat. This wasn't a tour de force.
The main problem with the film was not the "look" as many reviewers (and much of the film's small audience) attacked. Mann's decision to shoot in HD was not to the detriment of the film at all. In fact, it drew me in more than if it had the typical "period" film look, keeping an audience at arm's length, like walking into a museum. Look, but don't touch. It's similar to the feeling I had with Christopher Nolan's far superior (though comparing the two is impossible) The Prestige - the natural lighting, all of the "modern" cinematic tools brought a period of history too long romanticized into the urgency of modern day. Mann, ever the technical director (more on this later) pushed that look further by his decision to shoot in HD.
The problem with the film was Mann's decade-long desire to create stories devoid of character development, of "men doing jobs." He moved fully into this mode with Miami Vice, where Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx were bland, lifeless cops on a mission. Using the television show as the only backstory needed, and wagering all on his audience's identification with the pop culture icons Crockett and Tubbs, Mann crafted an undercover cop story filled with unconvincing romance, and the occasional flash of Mann-of-old brilliance.
So where did that go in Public Enemies? Nowhere.
There was some good - Depp, as always, crafted a fine performance as Dillinger, one worthy of and embracing the folk hero aspect of Dillinger. As Billie Frechet, Marion Cotillard proved herself one of the finest actresses working today (her work in La Vie en Rose was one of the few Oscar wins of recent memory that I felt truly deserved it), and her chemistry with Depp was quite good.
The weak link was Bale. As played by Bale (and written by Mann and co.), Melvin Purvis was a one-note law machine. He was the ultimate realization of a man doing a job. And he was a bore. Anyone who gives a look into Purvis's background and character would learn that he's from a Southern aristocratic family, with a drive towards justice, who left the FBI a year after Dillinger's death and killed himself in 1960.
What Mann squandered by his insistence on "Men doing jobs" was the opportunity to explore the folklore/reality split that was going on during Hoover's War On Crime. It was shown somewhat, by the excellent Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover (and who, in my mind, should have played Melvin Purvis - not the Batman-scowl Bale). The folk hero vs. the lawman.
Doing a work based on history is difficult, with pre-determined "reality-based" occurrences and events that must be adhered to. Not only that, the Dillinger story is well-known, and his death is one of the great bits of Americana (sad, but true). Where many stories succeed is in creating a sense of inevitability, that the characters and story are barreling towards a conclusion that none can avoid, Public Enemies elicits a "can we get to the movie theater" response. Public Enemies had the chance for greatness. To be the new great American crime epic.
Instead, it was reduced to a Michael Mann-directed History Channel reenactment. A stylish, good-looking HC reenactment, but one devoid of drama (save a few wonderful scenes with Depp and Cotiallard). That is the greatest tragedy of Public Enemies. Potential for greatness squandered by one of the greatest directors working today.
We are long overdue for a return to form for Michael Mann. His last truly great film was The Insider. I'm not asking for another Heat, but the time is right for Mann to kick it into high gear, and not flail about, concerned more with pushing technical boundaries and authenticity, than with the most important boundary to push - that of storytelling.