A Symphony of Kindred Spirits: Michael Mann’s Heat Turns 20
Overview: A bank robber and police lieutenant go head to head in Michael Mann’s triumphant crime epic. Warner Bros.; Rated R; 1995; 170 minutes.
A Mann’s Man: Michael Mann’s filmography often forsakes traditional plot for the sake of emotion. Mood, atmosphere, and cinematography draw in the audience to the world of individuals who both inhabit and avoid the constraints of society. Each character is defined by their desires and attempts at achieving said desires. More than anything, these individuals are bound by a personal code of ethics to maintain order in worlds run by larger forces seeking to influence them on their pursuit of happiness. By operating in their ideological fashions, the characters codes of honor also conflict with the very thing they so greatly desire. These conflicts are personified by a commonality between characters, for better and worse. Enter Heat; Mann’s sprawling crime epic with an authenticity so vital to its mass appeal it makes sense for other people to not engage with his recent digital work.
Two Sides, One Coin: Heat’s broad canvas stretches across the entirety of Los Angeles. From empty parking lots to the crowded streets of downtown, no portion of the city is left unexplored by the cops and criminals roaming the streets in line of their respective duties. Al Pacino’s Vincent Hannah and Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley lead two opposing groups of people, cops and robbers, through an intricate dance.
Hannah is a man driven by the chase. All he has is what or who he’s going after. He has other attachments in his life, but those fall by the wayside, with his third marriage on the brink of collapse. Hannah’s true commitment is his job. He pushes people away through his determination. Pacino’s performance is often mistaken for being over the top in certain scenes, but it’s only found during interrogations. Much like a peacock flashing its bright feathers, Hannah is trying to psych out criminals for information. When Hannah’s eyes aren’t bulging out of his skull or when he’s not discussing great asses, he spends time trying to save a failing third marriage. He’s a good man at heart and wants what’s best for his new wife and step-daughter, played by Diane Venora and a young Natalie Portman, respectively. We’re left with the sense that Hannah has an acute understanding of himself, even if nobody else quite does.
McCauley avoids the luxury of attachments. McCauley stares out his window with the image recalling the 1967 Alex Colville painting ‘Pacific’ informing the life McCauley lives. It’s a barren existence. McCauley only has the view of an endless ocean and a gun in frame as the only predominant object of importance in the room. De Niro plays McCauley cool as ice, calm, and collected. A man with a fashion sense and strong belief that attachments would hold him back from his professional commitments. He’s isolated by choice and convenience.
In the famous diner scene, the heavyweight actors sit across each other and reveal a commonality. Both men are the best at what they do. It is McCauley’s calling to be the best thief he knows how to be, while Hannah’s job is meant to stop McCauley from partaking in his reckless profession. Hannah and McCauley determine who they’re going up against, size each other up for a brief moment, and come to an understanding. The two men inhabit opposite ends of the world but in another life, another world, these two would be brothers in arms. It’s a courtship without the romance. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be and their worlds collide, with shrapnel spreading to both sides.
LA Takedown: It wouldn’t be a Michael Mann crime movie without intense shootouts. The much discussed gunplay on the streets of Los Angeles is just as gripping as ever. The sound of bullets reverberate between the skyscrapers, serving as a thrilling action set piece and a tragic mark in the world of these characters. McCauley and Hannah come out intact, but their coworkers end up injured or dead, with what little attachments the men had now falling apart. It’s a serious contender for the best shootout ever put on film. The sprawling impact the men have on the women in their lives is built on tragedy and intimacy. These women are not feeble nor do they require protection though male bravado, yet their personal fates are intrinsically tied to characters like Val Kilmer’s Chris. They represent an extension of the happiness these men pursue. “For me the sun rises and sets with her,” Chris explains to McCauley about the love of his life. Nobody wants to be alone. For the lives of these career criminals, this could mean the end of it.
Time is Luck: During the aforementioned scenes at the diner and with Chris in McCauley’s apartment, the professional thief speaks his mantra, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Hannah struggling to maintain some semblance of a home life. Given their line of work, it seems like a miracle for either one to have a sense of normalcy when they’re not doing what they do best. Whatever time is shared between the characters, bodies seeking for gratification in another.
Overall: Mann’s finales focus on a laser sharp focus between the central players. Subplots, all the twists and turns, will always be wrapped up as the film heads into the final act. The board is cleared with all but the two prime players in Hannah and McCauley. The chase culminates in the final minutes of the movie with the men saddened by how their fixation on doing their jobs lead them here. The next day will involve one of the men going back to work and moving forward, enduring his own chase. The other man will be lowered into the ground. But in this final moment, Hannah and McCauley were kindred spirits.