11/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Public Enemies and the Invention of Video

It's 1934. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are very serious about committing and stopping crime, respectively, flanked by every other handsome, gruff-faced man in Hollywood, plus a wealth of Tommy guns and Marion Cotillard. Sounds good; sounds like a lot of movies made between then and now. Recounting the last few months in the life of bank robber John Dillinger, as Public Enemies does, has been done at least four times before. Michael Mann's version isn't historically definitive, nor narratively the most cohesive, but it looks and feels different than any predecessor -- or any of this summer's other blockbusters. Its raw aesthetic evokes a violence not of John Dillinger's time, but of ours: the movie looks, arguably, cheap.

There are many economic and production-related reasons that filmmakers choose to shoot digital, but its flat, uncorrected look, muddy, half-visible blacks in low-light and clipped overexposures in the sun, are considered its flaws and carefully avoided. These days the technology can so closely approximate the look of film, telling the difference has become a matter of trivia (did you know that Benjamin Button and Superbad were shot digitally?). Public Enemies, shot with a mixture of non-film cameras from to the cinema-resolution Sony F23 to the $6K prosumer EX1, brings digital production's unique -- some would say, ugly -- qualities to the fore. The elaborate nightclub is nearly invisible. Cotillard's bathtub is eaten up by glare. Aside from the cast, you'd be forgiven for thinking it didn't cost $80 million. Production value be damned, this is the Great Depression -- er, Recession.

But there are advantages to shooting this way, too, and these are the audience's surprises. With multiple simultaneous cameras, the editors often find unflattering, unusual and sublime angles. In a car chase the cameras nearly scrape the dirt road, as likely to fall out of the car as the gangsters. Distant pursuers appear in a deep focus impossible with a film camera. Pretty Boy Floyd is gunned down at such a static angle, it looks like Purvis set up the tripod himself. That's the conceit: a renegade production for a renegade's biopic. Hushed dialogue strains the ear, and sudden, unsweetened gunshots blare. These might be flaws, but it's hard to argue that the volume, in the life of a gangster on the lam, ought to be normalized, or that gunfights ought to be prettier.

The raw video aesthetic would be less jarring were Public Enemies not set in 1934. The documentary style makes the action seem more real; the impossibility of video cameras during the Depression makes it all the more unreal. At its best, the movie uses this tension to great effect: paparazzi invade crime scenes, conflating Dillinger's celebrity and Depp's. When a police interrogator abuses Cotillard, the anachronism emphasizes his barbarity, while the verisimilitude makes it painfully familiar.

Anachronism enters Dillinger's life within the film, too. The outlaw was famously gunned down on his way out of the film Manhattan Melodrama, and the final aria in Public Enemies is a montage of Dillinger reflecting on his jailed lover in the smiles of Myrna Loy. One has to imagine that as dated as it seems in the middle of a 21st Century crime picture, for a man who'd lived so hard for so long as Dillinger had, the fighting between Gable and Powell was impossibly cute.

For all its aesthetic sophistication, the film's spontaneity runs roughshod over a lot of true history. There's the false premise that John Dillinger was made a priority after Purvis killed Floyd; in reality Floyd and Baby Face Nelson were shot after Dillinger. It's glossed over, but the women were prostitutes whom he took to the movies that night, and Dillinger never sauntered into the Dillinger squad, pining for his lost love. Michael Mann sides with Dillinger on the standing question, at the heart of the film's title -- whether he was a friend or an "enemy" of the public good -- and transforms him into a sentimental hero whose death was sort of a careless martyrdom. Guess there's nary an American who wouldn't like to rob a bank, these days.

Public Enemies doesn't confront Dillinger with questions or historical nuance; it doesn't make his heists nor his love life seem very sexy. It tells the story, true or not, of a man who tries and fails to escape a construct he'd made of himself. The history and melodrama are a lot of pretense -- independently unsatisfying -- but the spirit of the film, taking aesthetic risks and chasing what elsewhere would be considered flaws, manages to produce something nearer the spectacle -- or that construct, however unspectacular -- of John Dillinger.