An Appreciation – Heat
Many accuse Pacino for going too far in his acting. I disagree. Yes, he likes to go broad, but not many can reach the heights he does. He’s a ball of energy, and upon closer inspection we see him do so in consideration of his character. Hanna strives getting an advantage on his targets, he tries to unnerve them and get them off balance. The only times Hanna ever goes big is when he is shaking down an informant or interrogating a suspect. It’s an effective strategy, but the effort he puts in as a cop affects his personal life. He puts so much exertion into his work that his home life is in shambles. His relationship with his wife Justine (Diane Venora) is falling apart because he refuses to let her into his world. He has difficulty separating himself from the horror he sees at work and the domestic atmosphere he comes back to. Not only does it place a barrier between him and his wife, but also between him and his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) who we see shockingly becomes a victim of neglect. Hanna even uses his job as a means to escape the troubles he has at home. He’d rather chase criminals than deal with his family.
McCauley on the other hand has made a life removing himself from attachments, but at this point we start seeing the cracks start to show. Displaying a calm and cool demeanor, Robert De Niro fills McCauley as a sociopath that follows his own strict code. Everything is planned out, there’s always an escape route, and he never finds himself stuck in one place. But this way of living eventually starts wearing on him. He looks around and sees all of his associates with homes and families, and that desire to connect with someone leads him to meet Eady (Amy Brenneman) a graphic artist. Here’s the one sign of hope for McCauley for a real, normal life, but he can’t pull himself away from his profession. Even though he’s going through a series of alliances and betrayals from his latest score, he’s earned enough to simply walk away from it all, but can he? He has two sides pulling at him, and that psychological conflict eventually leads to his downfall.
The best scene of the film is when the Hanna and McCauley finally meet, having coffee in a diner. Throughout the entire plot, we’re eager for the two to come face to face. Pacino and De Niro were previously in The Godfather II (1974) together, but never shared the same scene. Advertisements played up these two actors getting to interact. Mann builds the anticipation, having the characters circle around until clashing at this one pivotal moment. It’s an acting showcase; Pacino leaning forward while De Niro sits back quietly. They act and react, one playing off the other. Listen to the dialogue shared here. You have your tough guy talk, but Mann also allows them to include insights and revelations we wouldn’t expect them to give. Hanna and McCauley share details of their lives, the dreams that haunt them, and the understanding that they will kill the other if necessary. These are two articulate, self-aware characters that realize the positions they’re in, and the tragedy of knowing they’ll never find fulfillment in anything else. It borders on the poetic. Mann made the right choice to make this the one scene where Pacino and De Niro truly get to work together (save for the last shot of the film). It heightens the gravity of the moment. Who would’ve thought that in an action drama with plenty of violence that the best scene would be the one where two people talk while having coffee?
That’s not to downplay the action. Working with director of photography Dante Spinotti, Mann constructs set pieces that are direct and immediate. The action comes in small doses, but are so well realized that they’ve become iconic. They’re bold but not flashy, capitalizing on the anxiety driven from these daylight robberies in heavily populated areas. The scenes are done so well that they’ve influenced the way filmmakers have done similar sequences, from The Town (2010) to The Dark Knight (2008) and even in video games. The action in Heat works because Mann doesn’t glamorize them. The imagery is gritty and raw, and the deaths come with heavy ramifications. Take for instance the opening heist, where McCauley’s crew slams a semi into an armored truck to steal what’s guarded inside. Their execution is swift and meticulous, done in real time. Suspense is triggered when Waingro (Kevin Gage) – a last minute recruit – takes matters into his own hands and murders one of the guards. It’s one death, but the consequences ripple throughout the rest of the plot.
One of the greatest action scenes ever put on film happens a little more than halfway through, where McCauley’s crew attempts a daring bank heist in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. At just over ten minutes, the scene is broken in two sections: the initial bank robbery, and the following shootout between the robbers and the police officers (including Hannah). Even with the accomplished cinematography, editing, and choreography of all the players, the true stand out is the sound. Listen to Elliot Goldenthal’s score as we first enter the bank – low and quiet, but with heightened pace to create palpable tension. Carrying high-powered assault rifles and black ski masks, the imagery of the McCauley’s crew is stark and intimidating. Things only escalate as the crew moves out on to the street and begins to trade gunfire with the police. At this point, the score drops out, allowing the sound of the gunshots to make its drastic impact. The shoot out is loud and overwhelming, with the sound of each shot ricocheing off the nearby buildings.
The scene is impressive not in the way average shootouts are, where characters go in guns blazing. This has a realistic feel. The movements are tactical, the robbers going from one location to the other with precision. Even though they are surrounded with Hanna and his team coming right up on them, McCauley’s crew work their way out of a jam. Their skill is on full display. Some members of the military even reference this scene to show how to properly act while in a firefight. The moment where Shiherlis runs out of the ammo and quickly reloads has been often studied. But what really makes the scene remembered is everything that came before it. Because Mann heavily focuses on the development of Hanna, McCauley, and everyone who plays an important part of their lives, the understanding builds the suspense when they come into danger. In a strange way, we want neither side to lose because we know who these people are, and realize the circumstances that brought them to this time and place.
When given the choice of participating or walking away from a high-risk score, a character (played by Tom Sizemore) responds, “For me, the action is the juice.” That is the defining theme of Michael Mann’s work – to examine how people operate within their own moral system, and how it contrasts with the rest of society. Hanna and McCauley live within a universe of their own creation, and have to come to terms with the consequences of that decision. Mann places all of this within a Los Angeles modified as a concrete battleground. It’s this level of meticulous thought that makes Heat break through the boundaries of its given genre.