The Search for Order

Public Enemies – Directed by Michael Mann

In his new film Public Enemies Michael Mann documents a sea change in American Culture. The FBI’s hunt for John Dillinger becomes, in his hands, a treatise on how the logic of the professional managerial class took hold over both gangsters and the people hunting them. Dillinger is the unbending romantic who holds dear to his personal code. Mann argues that institutions and syndicates, which form to better enforce community ethics, actively betray those ethics in their pursuit of tangible objectives.

The film’s leads illustrate this idea nicely. Depp, man of a thousand eccentrics, immediately registers to filmgoers as a man with his own idiosyncratic path–Dillinger. Nothing in the film dissuades us from that judgment. Bale, as FBI agent Purvis, turns in yet another performance as a man whose drive causes him to toss aside decorum.

But the film also delivers this thesis through its demonstration of how easily forms of communication become forms of surveillance. The FBI creates elaborate wired and tagged phone taps*; the newsreel is a wanted poster and pr tool. At the end, Dillinger is undone through the unraveling of his network of friends.

I think Mann’s a little hard on institutions as such, but Dillinger’s radical, shortsighted, hedonistic individualism is not offered as a solution.

*Mann doubles these phone banks with the ones used by a bookie, who informs Depp that he’s persona non grata in the organized crime community.


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July 2009
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