John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) robs banks. Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is out to get him. Dillinger falls in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). As a documentary, this is pretty faithful to the facts. Unfortunately, as entertainment, it falls short. Director Michael Mann has substituted machine guns for dialogue. He must have expended a million bullets shooting this film. The movie lurches from one shootout to another. And, like the corny westerns of old, bullets fly all over the place but rarely hit anything. Those shooting in this film don’t even make a pretense of aiming. They just fire off clip after clip. And they are loud clips. (In fact, Dillinger shot and killed only one man during his crime spree.)
The tragedy of this film is that Mann has made a conscientious effort to be true to history. In that, he has done a fine job. Infamous as Dillinger became, it’s hard to believe that his public career lasted but 13 months. Imprisoned when just a young man, he was paroled in May of 1933. He was dead by July of 1934. Mann tells the story of those 13 months so faithfully that he used exact locations when he could. Dillinger’s spectacular jailbreak was shot where it occurred—at the lockup at Crown Point, Indiana, and the scene of the brutal shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge was shot where it occurred. Finally, his death outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago was also filmed where it occurred. Disappointing as the movie was to me, I have to praise Mann for his devotion to accuracy, something often lacking in movies “based on” true events and people.
But it’s not storytelling. It seems as if Mann just assumes that the audience will have enough knowledge of Dillinger’s history that he doesn’t have to explain anything. For instance, the opening scene of the movie, a jailbreak orchestrated by Dillinger to get his former cellmates out of the slammer.
While Depp does a fine job in recreating Dillinger’s apparent charm, I often wonder why a big star like Bale is cast in (and accepts) a one-dimensional role like this one of Melvin Purvis. Bale’s performance adds little to the film, even though the advertising makes one think that it’s two stars going up against one another. It’s nothing like Peter O’Toole vs. Richard Burton in “Becket” (1964) or Clark Gable facing off with Spenser Tracy in “San Francisco” (1936) and “Boom Town” (1940).
Cotillard, on the other hand, sparkles as Dillinger’s girlfriend. In addition to Cotillard and Depp, who is almost a dead ringer for the charismatic Dillinger, Billy Crudup gives a terrific interpretation of J. Edgar Hoover. He plays him straight-up with no negative implications, as he probably was at the start of his career. Dillinger was the first to be called “Public Enemy No. 1” by Hoover’s FBI.
There are so many characters, like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) but none of them are introduced or fleshed out in any manner that would allow you to figure out who they are or remember them. Most of them die but when they die you wonder, who was that?
Despite Mann’s devotion to accuracy, there is at least one glaring factual gaffe. The day Dillinger is killed, he walks into the “Dillinger Squad” of a Chicago police station, and strolls around a bunch of cops sitting around a radio listening to a Cubs-Yankees baseball game. The Cubs played the Yankees in the 1932 World Series. Dillinger died on July 22, 1934. There was no interleague play in those days. I guarantee you that the Cubs did not play the Yankees on July 22, 1934. Probably nobody else will notice this because it’s background, and the Yankees are only mentioned once. But I noticed it, and winced.
This would be a pretty good documentary. As entertainment, it comes up short.