Public Enemies (2009) and Digital Projection

I will begin with a brief review : Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) is a completely unexceptional crime thriller.  Its characters are extremely simplistic, its engagement with historical or social context is minimal, its writing is functional, its performances are adequate (with the exception of Stephen Graham as Baby-Face Nelson) and its pacing slightly saggy but ultimately reasonable.  Much like Mann’s Heat (1995), it is a film best remembered for one beautifully staged shoot-out.  However, despite having nothing to say and failing for all of the thematic reasons that Richard Kovitch mentions in his review, the film does do one thing well : It provides a fantastic justification for the roll-out of digital projection.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Digital projection is seen, along with 3D (*shudder*), as one of the saviours of cinema.  By getting rid of physical film, film companies hope to be able to do global releases without the need to stagger releases and ship canisters of film about the place.  With digital projectors installed, cinemas hope not only to screen sport and theatrical events but also to bring to the big screen old classics (the lower costs making the economics more feasible).

So far, my experiences with digital have been somewhat mixed.  I saw Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) at the NFT and Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) in digital projections and was impressed at the better use of projection surfaces to create, in effect, larger screens but I was somewhat disappointed with the quality.  Because these films had been shot on film they looked a little blurry when projected digitally.  However, Mann’s film laid many of these fears to rest.

Public Enemies was shot on Sony’s high-definition digital F-23 cameras and the results are simply stunning.  The picture captures every hair in a character’s moustache and every pore in their skin.  It makes light sources almost ethereally bright and it seems to capture individual particles in billowing clouds of smoke.  As I sat watching the film, I could not draw my eyes away from how detailed the film’s pictures were.  However, aside from being detailed, Public Enemies’ cinematography, is also clearly aping the aesthetics of news cameras.

Films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cloverfield (2008) set out to capture the aesthetics of the camcorder.  By which I mean not only the way that amateur camera men fail to hold the camera steady and pan too quickly for the refresh rate to keep up, but also the universal awareness that there is a camera present at the scene.  In Cloverfield, the action would be interrupted by elements of a previous video that had not been deleted.  In The Blair Witch Project much is made of the use of the camera as a barrier between the characters and the world.  Public Enemies does not share this awareness of the presence of the camera.  Instead, the aesthetics are much closer to those of a front-line news report;  The camera is mostly steady, mostly in focus but when things happen suddenly then the camera whips round, blurring the image in the process as the camera operator seeks out better and more apposite images to transmit back to the audience at home.  The astonishing realism and almost tape-like quality to the images add to this sense of reality.  It is as though the film is shot by journalists embedded in Dillinger’s gang.

Undeniably, had Public Enemies been shot on film or transferred over to film for projection purposes, then much of this effect would have been lost, so if you must see Public Enemies see it on a screen with digital projection.  Anything short of a cutting edge TV and Bluray player will destroy much of what makes this film so visually remarkable.


  1. I think the most interesting thing about new cinematic technologies is how they produce new sorts of films.

    Technicolour producing grand extravaganzas, epics living up to the larger than life colours on screen.

    Camcorders as you note leading to films in which protagonists more keen on recording than survival film events on cameras using battery technology smuggled from some future civilisation.

    Film noir I believe was influenced in part by new possibilities in lighting reliability and in camera lens technology.

    Now this, I think in part it’s impossible to speak seriously about film (so I don’t) without a degree of understanding both of the economics and the technology. The focus is always on the director’s vision, even in our post-auteur age, and not sufficiently on how that vision is realised and how that process changes the eventual work. I was interested to see your article on distribution recently, and this one too makes a welcome change from the way these issues are so often ignored.


  2. Hmm… I’m not sure that this really did open up a new kind of film. Yes, it’s visually striking and yes it looks quite cool but I don’t these really added very much to the film. I still have no plans to upgrade to a highdef TV :-)

    As for Film Noir, I think another of the technological breakthroughs was the capacity to shoot on location relatively easily and cheaply. If you think about it, this makes quite a big difference as prior to that everything would have been shot on lots with buildings being used and reused in different films (indeed, this is why places like Universal studios were able to turn their old back lots into theme parks).


  3. Interesting take on the film Jonathan.

    Despite the clarity of Digital Projection (which rather exposed the period drama artifice) it shocked me that the sound mix was amongst the most atrocious I have ever (barely) heard. Miami Vice was similarly diabolical in this respect. Sentences changing volume halfway through, taking us from incoherent mumble to shout, meaning the audio ended up functioning as near Brechtian-alienating device just to remind us of the technology relaying the film. The result? We were further prevented from immersing ourselves in the story and the 1930’s. Once again then, strange paradoxes at the centre of a Michael Mann film and the search for ‘reality’ results in hyperreality. I must admit, despite the sheen of the digital cameras, I yearned for the dreaminess of film, and wished ‘Public Enemies’ had a look similiar to The Changeling, or Road To Peredition, both fake realities to, but ones which weren’t so surface deep. Good article on this in the current Sight & Sound.

    The great revolution digital technology will provides is simply related to cost. It has already made it cheaper to make films, and that will enable fresher, less conventional stories to get told. A company like Microwave is a good example of this new-found freedom, and a direct result of digital technology.

    > Much like Mann’s Heat (1995), it is a film best remembered for one beautifully staged shoot-out.

    Now that’s harsh!


  4. I was thinking of this bit Jonathan: “The astonishing realism and almost tape-like quality to the images add to this sense of reality. It is as though the film is shot by journalists embedded in Dillinger’s gang.”

    Which seemed possibly something new. Disappointing to learn it didn’t.

    Richard, interesting comment on the implications of reduced cost, that would be breath of fresh air.

    As for Mann, I thought Heat horribly portentous and overblown, and I thought Miami Vice cripplingly dull. I’m not really a fan of his work, too much surface gloss, too little content.


  5. I just watched this film in an Auckland cinema (the Rialto) and the presentation was appalling. Apart from the sound sounding like 5.1 with only the front speakers on (hard to hear dialogue but deafening music and sfx), and the centre of the screen not being in focus, the picture looked exactly like a bad film transfer of video footage. I complained to management within minutes of the opening titles, where the focus/registration was a givaway, and when she returned form the projection booth I was told that the film was being projected in 35mm but “was shot on the Red camera and that’s what it looks like”. She also didn’t think the audio editing had been done very well…
    I look forward to the Blu-ray and watching this- even in plain stereo on my HD monitor at home.


  6. Hi Steve,

    I got on quite well with it but I was watching it in a cinema with one of them thar new fangled digital projectors and it looked really good.

    Transferring it to 35mm would, one suspect, change the look of the film and, in the process, destroy the only reason for wanting to see the film :-)


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