Public Enemies is a story of how a criminal chased after his illegal dreams and was eventually captured by the police. Of course, considering that most crime-aficionados would already know that in real life, John Dillinger dies during a shootout, the ending of the film is already predictable. What actually matters is how the story is presented.
In this case, Michael Mann providesa wonderful tapestry of scenes that balance out the motives and rationality behind the two of the strongest driving forces in the movie: Dillinger's common-man lifestyle which has him always 'forced' to take on jobs in order to get money, and agent Melvin Pulvis' strong beliefs and principles that fall in line with Hoover's notion of a systematic method of stopping criminal behavior. Of course, none of this underlines the real cause of the issue -the economy of the period. But even that is evident in the film's setting, background, and character dialogues. Watching the film, viewers just know that no matter how impeccably well dressed a character may be, the economy at that time was grinding against them.
Establishment of Order
Public Enemies focuses not so much on how Dillinger perpetrated his crimes, but rather on the why. And motives are a primary ingredient of this movie. Almost all of Dillinger's accomplices (from his own crew like Floyd to those he just worked with like Karpis) have their own reasons for breaking the law. While John's relationship with Billie Frechette adds a dose of melodrama into the tale, the narrative is at its best when it comes the almost desperate ways that Dillinger manages to just barely keep one step ahead of his would-be captors.
Purvis is as much the film's lead character as Dillinger. As an FBI agent, Purvis is not only tasked with bringing down a criminal who has earned enough notoriety to be labeled as America's most wanted, but also the unspoken fact that his performance will also give value to the competence and importance of the FBI as a measure against criminal activities.
Not Quite How it Happened
Since this film is based on real life, you might not want to invite that one friend over when you watch it -you know who we mean, that one person who just nitpicks at every single 'historical inaccuracy' that appears. Public Enemies, at the end of the day, is still just a film. It does send a message, and it does have its own social lessons, but it never takes on the role of being an accurate or even historical record of the past. This is especially true of the deaths of Dillinger's crew, many of whom outlived John, even if for just a few months or years. Many of whom are shown killed over the course of the movie -this is of course to preserve the narrative feel of the tale.
With regards to not being entirely accurate, Public Enemies is more than just forgivable or tolerated, it deserves the freedom to do so. Take away all the notions of the story being based on real life and you still get a period crime drama that is incredibly interesting to watch. The story itself is a provocative piece on the romanticism in the portrayal of criminals in media, delivering a story that is not clearly cut into black and white, but rather clarifies how many variances of gray that people on both sides of the law have to muddle around in just to survive.
The film's two main characters, Dillinger and Pulvis, are played by Johnny Depp, and Christian Bale (respectively). The two made significant effort on their own to learn as much about the character, personalities, and mannerisms of the people they played. It was a combination of thorough study that even included getting to know the surviving relatives of the characters.