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.
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.