Flickchart Road Trip: Indiana
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
They love their basketball in Indiana. No two ways about it.
However, I chose to use my trip to Indiana to explore my love of basketball, not theirs.
I decided to visit the hometown of my favorite athlete of all time, and one of the sport’s all-time greats, Larry Bird. Bird of course played his entire professional career on the NBA’s Boston Celtics, my hometown team, but before that he turned underdog Indiana State into an NCAA finalist (whereas Indiana University had always previously held the basketball spotlight). Long before that he was just a little boy shooting hoops in his yard in French Lick. It’s not a particularly easy place to get to, either. I rode I-69 down from Michigan to Indianapolis, where the beltway around that city spat me out on a series of back roads (most notably US-150) that eventually deposited me in Bird’s old stomping grounds.
French Lick — so named because it was home to a French trading post near a salt lick — is mighty proud of Mr. Bird, that’s for sure. There are signs everywhere, from statues and busts to a street named Larry Bird Blvd. Even though this is Indiana Pacers country, the locals even seem to love the Boston Celtics, just because Bird played on the team. So I wore my jersey with pride, and one local even pointed me toward Bird’s childhood home, on Washington Street.
A far less upstanding Indiana native is the subject of my Indiana movie, Michael Mann‘s Public Enemies. Unsavory though he may be, John Dillinger was popular as heck back in the day, so some folks in Indiana may be as proud of having him as a native son as they are of having Bird. Mann’s movie wasn’t as popular as either of them, as this should have been a slam dunk (pun intended) for me to watch at the time it came out. Yet middling word-of-mouth means I’m only getting to it now, nearly four years later. The 2009 film ranks #2313 globally.
What it’s about
Public Enemies follows the career of legendary bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) through some of the jobs that made him famous/beloved, as well as the pursuit of Dillinger led by lawman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), whose division was used by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to justify the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The story picks up in 1933, after Dillinger is already an infamous criminal. Arguing that he’s having too much fun to quit, Dillinger continues hitting various banks with his various loyal cohorts, just evading capture by police and the feds — most of the time, that is. Giving him extra cause for caution, however, is his new relationship with a beautiful coat check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who falls for the charismatic gangster despite initially being taken aback by his dangerous “line of work.” Purvis, meanwhile, is under heavy pressure to catch Dillinger after he and his accomplices slip through their fingers on multiple occasions, and calls on Hoover to provide him the additional force he needs to mount an effective enough unit to capture (or kill) so-called Public Enemy #1. After a number of firefights with loss of life on both sides, the feds steadily begin to close in on Dillinger, using his love for Billie as a means of drawing him out.
How it uses the state
John Dillinger is clearly associated with Chicago, where he had the most presence and where he was killed. However, he was born in Mooresville, Indiana (as he states during a rapid-fire “get-to-know-me” session with Billie Frechette), and that’s where his first theft occurred. Indiana is also where he broke out of prison — twice. The film opens with the prison break from the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, and later includes a segment involving his escape from the smaller Lake County Jail in Crown Point. A bank job in the Indiana town of Greencastle is also referenced. When Dillinger is extradited from Arizona to Indiana in the middle of the movie, a reporter asks him if he’s glad to see Indiana again. “About as glad as Indiana is to see me, I suppose,” he quips.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Indiana movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Public Enemies will battle:
1) A Christmas Story (1983, Bob Clark). My Flickchart: #69/3652. Global: #349. A Christmas movie in August? This one would be fun to watch any time of year, and I can say without hesitation it’s my favorite holiday movie. My parents never exposed me to the other contenders (such as It’s a Wonderful Life), but A Christmas Story was a family tradition. That’s in part because my dad was Ralphie’s age at around that time, around that part of the country, and he also wanted a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s true that this movie presents us some spot-on nostalgia for the Midwest of the 1940s, for the suburban Indiana of writer Jean Shepherd’s childhood, but it’s got the added bonus of being hilarious. Shepherd’s narration takes care of much of that, but Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, as Ralphie’s parents, are priceless, exaggerating their salient characteristics just enough to keep us laughing every time they’re on screen. As Ralphie himself, Peter Billingsley is darn near iconic. Whether it’s a tongue stuck on a frozen pole or a lamp shaped like a leg, A Christmas Story is chock full of classic moments.
2) Kinsey (2004, Bill Condon). My Flickchart: #354/3652. Global: #2661. Before Bill Condon somehow became linked with the Twilight series (he directed the final two installments), he wrote and directed acclaimed movies with a lot on their minds, the best of which may have been Kinsey. Kinsey concerns the true story of an Indiana University biology professor named Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), who evolves from his lectures on gall wasps to begin studying the sexual habits of human beings. By taking an exhaustive series of sexual histories from interview subjects, he publishes numerous findings about sexual behaviors in men, and then, less successfully, in women. He also comes up with the so-called Kinsey Scale, which measures where subjects fall on the spectrum between totally heterosexual and totally homosexual. Anchored by Neeson’s sensitive performance and Laura Linney‘s co-starring turn as Kinsey’s wife, the film movingly explores the earnest struggles of this man as he confronts truths in himself and in his relationships. It’s a rock-solid drama with a big emotional payoff.
3) Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh). My Flickchart: #1627/3652. Global: #499. If I don’t rate Hoosiers higher, it’s because I spent the first 20 years after seeing it thinking it was racist. When I watched it again three years ago, I realized that a movie isn’t racist just because it asks you to root for a team of white high school basketball players against a team of black high school basketball players — sometimes that’s just true to history. True enough, the story of small-town underdogs coached by Gene Hackman‘s Norman Dale is loosely based on the Milan, Indiana high school basketball team that won the 1954 state championship, beating teams who should have clobbered them on paper. David Anspaugh’s movie rides Hackman’s performance (and an Oscar-nominated turn from Dennis Hopper as the town drunk) to create a real sense of place, and to really get you invested in the improbable road to victory of this motley crew of basketball players, led by Maris Valainis‘ Jimmy Chitwood.
4) Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates). My Flickchart: #2179/3652. Global: #635. If you were puzzled by my Hoosiers ranking, you may really be puzzled by my ranking of Breaking Away, which nearly everyone thinks is a solid coming-of-age sports movie. Nearly everyone. This falls squarely into the “didn’t get what all the fuss was about” category for me. What fuss? Breaking Away was nominated for Oscars in five categories, including best picture. It won best original screenplay. I thought that was a strange number of accolades to heap on a movie in which a recent high school graduate (Dennis Christopher) in Bloomington, Indiana is obsessed with Italian cycling, such that he annoys his friends and family with his appropriation of Italian culture and poses as an Italian exchange student. I was expecting more meat to the story, but there isn’t a lot more, except that he and his friends (played by such future mainstays as Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid and Jackie Earle Haley) prepare for a local bicycle race they want to win, while clashing with the local Indiana University college students who call them the derogatory term “cutters.” I clearly missed something in Breaking Away.
5) A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg). My Flickchart: #2601/3652. Global: #855. Other than the fact that the math worked out that way for the Indiana movies I chose, A History of Violence probably doesn’t deserve to be my #5 movie of any state. However, the designation seems appropriate, because this was my bottom-ranked movie for the first few months I used Flickchart, before I discovered the ability to rank by title. The truth is, it took a second viewing of A History of Violence to convince me it had some of the merit most people say it has. The story of a small-town Indiana diner owner (Viggo Mortensen) who may have a secret violent past that’s catching up to him, his wife (Maria Bello) and his children (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes), Cronenberg’s film has just never really worked for me, from story to character to performance. One good indication of how I’m out of synch with most people on this film: The Academy nominated William Hurt for an Oscar, yet I thought his scene was the weakest, a textbook example of scenery chewing. At least my wife agrees with me; a sold-out show forced us to sit apart at the screening, and we both separately disliked it.
First duel: Public Enemies vs. Hoosiers. A last-second basketball shot beats a first (and last) shot to John Dillinger’s head. (Spoiler alert!) Hoosiers wins.
Second duel: Public Enemies vs. Breaking Away. If Dillinger relied on a bicycle as a getaway vehicle, he would have had a really short career. Breaking Away wins.
Third duel: Public Enemies vs. A History of Violence. Sorry, History of Violence — I just can’t get over it. Public Enemies wins.
Public Enemies finishes fifth out of the six movies.
Michael Mann is a cold filmmaker. Always has been. Always will be.
This suits him well in certain contexts. When a movie has a journalistic quality to it (The Insider) or explores a character who is essentially empty (Collateral), the arm’s length distance Mann keeps between himself and his subject is appropriate, even beneficial to the mood of the film. Where it doesn’t work so well is with a larger-than-life character who is supposed to be really charismatic, which was the case in Ali and is the case here in Public Enemies. As Dillinger, Depp has rarely felt smaller. While it’s probably wise that Depp is reigned in here more than he is when Tim Burton directs him, the flat performance almost makes me miss the Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka.
Mann adds to the degree of difficulty when he makes the emotional punch of the movie hinge on a romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette. Save The Last of the Mohicans, Mann’s films almost pathologically avoid romance, and it’s clear he just doesn’t know how to do it. In part because Marion Cotillard is such an elegant presence, and Depp is so unremarkable, it’s difficult to determine why Billie would make such a devoted commitment to the supposed charm of Dillinger. If we can’t see why he swept an apparently smart girl off her feet so easily, we doubt the strength of their bond. Consequently, we don’t really care whether they manage to find each other while separated by an army of lawmen staking out their every move. We don’t care whether Dillinger passed on a sentimental message to Billie with his dying breath.
Christian Bale doesn’t fare a whole lot better as Melvin Purvis. He does have a burning desire to catch Dillinger present in his eyes at all times, and that’s interesting on a basic visual level. Still, he too feels compacted by Mann’s direction. Mann seemed to set out with the clinical goal of documenting a variety of key scenes from the lives of both Purvis and Dillinger, executing them with a degree of handsome competency, and then moving on to the next. There’s little passion to anything we see here, and no love for film as a medium. Mann accomplishes his modest goals of authentic presentation and period design, but he doesn’t give us a reason to care about his movie.
There are more movies set in Illinois’ biggest city, Chicago, than the city has corrupt politicians — but just barely. I won’t be discussing only Chicago movies on my trip through Illinois, but my main movie does reside on Chicago’s South Side. It’s The Interrupters, the latest documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, and it’s going to single-handedly solve inner-city violence, once and for all.