The Oscar Race Begins

Public Enemies, the terrific cops-and-robbers summer blockbuster that opens today, shows director Michael Mann at the top of his game, and Johnny Depp coming into his fullest range yet.

06.30.09 10:58 PM ET

I had the occasion of seeing an early screening of Public Enemies and I can tell you that the Oscar race is officially on. Nobody weaves the stories of cops and robbers in America the way that Michael Mann does. Every detail, every nuance, every pastiche leads to a complex story that is so rich in characterization that it penetrates history.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the performance where Johnny Depp shows all the range of acting. It’s the leading man as a character actor, it’s the character actor as the leading man, it’s the awareness, the silences, the romantic who becomes enthralled with Billie (played beautifully by Marion Cotillard), but it’s also the flinty, self-aware John Dillinger who knows what good public relations is, who knows what his public persona is, who knows what his characteristic of what he would do and what he wouldn’t do is, and knows whether an action is something “that the people would like.”

The clash between organized crime, the FBI, and the independent gangster (i.e. Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Karpis, etc.) is an original concept that we’ve never seen in a crime story.

The film is also chilling from the opposite point of view. Christian Bale becomes Melvin Purvis, the first famous G-man who tracks the gangsters down. J. Edgar Hoover, portrayed by Billy Crudup, has an incredible notion when he and Purvis talk about an FBI made up of “people like us”—and “people like us” are college educated, Midwestern, “moral,” and “straight”—laced. It’s no coincidence that Tribeca Productions and Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company were interested in this material at one time. Because some of the notions in Public Enemies reflect on what I thought was the most underrated movie of the past 10 years, The Good Shepherd. When you watch Crudup’s Hoover, it’s impossible not to think of Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd and those themes. To me, Public Enemies, The Good Shepherd, The Godfather, and Scarface—both of them: the early one and Oliver Stone’s Scarface—are not only biographies of criminals, but in a way a biography of America—a more overt biography—where Citizen Kane is a biography of the American rogue.

There are three great practitioners of this art working at the height of their powers today. Marty Scorsese, Johnnie To, and Michael Mann. This is Michael Mann at the height of his height.

Bring your wits, your intelligence, and your curiosity to the table and you’ll be rewarded with a feast.

Xtra Insight: Kim Masters: Public Enemies' True Crimes

Harvey Weinstein is co-chairman of The Weinstein Company with his brother Bob. He is co-creator and executive producer of Project Runway. Harvey and Bob founded Miramax Films in 1979 and under the Weinsteins, Miramax received 249 Academy Award nominations and won 60 Academy Awards.