Heat is a thriller from 1995 about a professional burglar named Neil McCauley and his brilliant portrait of a criminal mastermind. He calculates risk and reward like a criminal mastermind. Yet his character is a brutal one and risks everything for revenge--which is his downfall. This is the first and only time Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro appear as arch enemies who seek to outwit the other.
I believe this movie is a classic and will never lose its palpable intensity. The simplicity of my characterization, however, should be understood as more than my interpretation, my opinion. Michael Mann created a work of Art and I don’t believe Art is something that can be fully distilled and interpreted, so this essay should be taken as no more than my opinion.
The essence of this movie, which I believe makes it a classic, is the brilliance of mirroring DeNiro’s character with Pacino’s-
and vice versa, though AND BECAUSE-they are on opposite sides of the law and live by very similar credos. Right from the beginning the question is posed, _what is the law? -since they both live by their laws. If there were additional space I could elaborate on this theme which is perhaps deeper than the theme which I discuss here. In short, Mann imbues the two characters with an authenticity unseen in movies today. That authenticity is personal choice and responsibility at any cost-following their codes despite their human feelings. These men live the lives they have chosen, for which they accept responsibility and, in a sense, because they mirror each other, ask the profound question: what is the law—the law of the State or the law one makes for oneself?
DeNiro is not a thief. He is a master at robbery who leaves nothing to chance and will walk away from any crime “in 30 seconds flat, if he feels the heat around the corner.” “That is the discipline,” he says to Pacino, who instantly recognizes “this discipline” and calls it “harsh” knowing deep down that he too lives this life of the harshness of truth himself. Right from the beginning, after intimacy with his third wife, she wants more closeness, but Pacino with panache, portrays a man already out the door with his mind on the next thing. He is absent from his marriage because he is a predator.
Brilliantly, this conversation in which they discuss these fundamental issues, is set by Mann in the very midst of the mundane: an “ordinary coffee shop,” surrounded by “ordinary people.” Mann then creates a kind of wall of empty space surrounding them at the table. Later we realize that this wall is a space which is a reflection of their authentic natures and acceptance of their individual responsibility. In this place, each discloses to the other their most intimate secrets, authentically, disclosing in a subtle but powerful way that they are truly “brothers” sitting together.
Pacino, a legend in the Police Force in the Major Crime Squad, with a tremendous record and cat-like instinct for the “game” he plays on a regular basis- to catch his prey: the criminal, also lives a “harsh” life-a fact he knows all too well. He admits to DeNiro in a way that suggests confrontation (“if it comes to it,” he says, “and you are going to make some poor woman a widow, “he won’t like it” he says, “but brother I will put you [DeNiro] down.”) The question of why he won’t “like it” is starkly answered in a way the audience may miss: both Pacino and DeNiro recognize the depth of their talk and call each other “brother.” As DeNiro says in response, “there is a flip side to that coin, if I see or feel you around the corner and I can’t get boxed in, I won’t like it but I will not hesitate to take you down.” In describing this to DeNiro it may sound like Pacino’s threat to him, but he is also making a deeper point: he is mirroring how both characters reflect each others tenacity and commitment to their “law”; thus, they understand each other in a deep way as being what DeNiro called “two sides of the same coin.”
Pacino admits that he lives for one reason only: to seek out evil. Like a predator he does not rest. His creed is the mirror image of DeNiro’s “harsh” creed to walk away, or in other words, disappear, break all ties with everyone, do not get involved, stay away from others and keep your distance so you can follow the creed. Pacino gives up everything- four wives-and willingly lives “a vacant life” (described in an unforgettable dream sequence in which the vacancy is reflected back at him by the dead who simply stare at him) in admitting the emptiness of his life, he reflects DeNiro’s creed, and also admits that there is only one thing that drives him, one thing that keeps him feeling alive: to outwit and bring down men like DeNiro—the brilliant criminal. He is possessed by this calling, described in the bleak symbolism of his dream from which he runs and can never escape, that his objective motive for his constant chase, namely that he feels that he must avenge the victims, is much more personal to him than he first says, he is running on empty to escape his ghosts, the victims which he can’t help and yet haunt him continuously. He simply can’t get away from this ugliness of the innocent dead from his dream, and in part he displays his type of compassion for the victims staring at him in the dream. So he is out there every night seeking his “prey” which is the only thing that he lives for, motivated by his deep inner need to try to fill the vacant life he has chosen but knows he will never escape. Interestingly, I believe Mann foreshadows the end of the film since neither dream can be realized, and they know it in the coffee shop. They tell their dreams as if they were talking about someone else.
One final aspect of the diner discussion. In addition to their admissions that they will take the other down- “but won’t like it” (because they are brothers? because each, like the moon and the earth revolve around each other by the force of gravity) is that they admit that “a regular life” (the life of the audience) is something that they could never live. DeNiro takes down scores (crimes) and Pacino lives to stop him. Then they both admit to each other the mirror aspect of their beings, both admit they would not change a thing about what they do. DeNiro takes scores and Pacino tries to stop them. They are both bound by their own law. Then Pacino says something remarkable given the prior openness and honesty of each other: he asks DeNiro “haven’t you ever thought about living a normal life?” to which DeNiro immediately responds: “what’s a “normal” life? Baseball games and barbecues?” he says with disdain. No, says DeNiro, he does what he does best and what he wants to do-he will never change- he takes scores. Pacino as his mirror (and his symbolic “brother”) admits the very same thing. He lives to take down scores-and would not change a thing.
The irony of these fundamental admissions in an ordinary coffee shop is that the audience itself is immediately implicated by their own “vacancy.” After all, these two men know who they are and live their lives to the fullest based on the choices they have made and the commitment to their laws of existence- irrespective of the consequences or what others think-and this is something the audience can’t say (or even think about their own lives). The audience undoubtedly feels, and repels the truth they feel in the pit of their stomach, that they don’t express who they truly are, that they are afraid to take responsibility for their lives, live like others, and wear a mask to hide their false image to imitate the image they believe others would approve of. Indeed, Pacino even says that “we are sitting here like two regular guys having coffee,” as if to emphasize Mann’s attempt to involve the underlying theme of authenticity with the audience, the power it gives these two men and the implication of the exercise of true freedom, and their acceptance of their true potential at any cost. (“I do what I do best, I take scores” says DeNiro, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” Then Pacino mirrors him exactly.) They are heros in their own way: they have chosen not to betray their true potential and acquire a false self- something the audience cannot escape as they leave the theater. In this Age, I believe Mann has portrayed one of its deepest truths-in the context of our pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal. Pacino and DeNiro in THIS AGE express true freedom and true commitment to their willing choices—their laws.
This point is underscored by Pacino’s question about an “ordinary life” to DeNiro. A button is pushed and the viewer is shocked again. The audience feels the pain because they know that they are living that ordinary life Pacino mentions. And to drive this point home about authenticity at any price, Pacino and DeNiro admit to each other that what they do is what they have chosen to do—and would not do anything else. Despite, or because of the context of their mirrored selves, each become tragic heros whose lives are bound together not only because of the chase, but because they have chosen in freedom, by them, not others, who they are and that their choice is authentic to who they are.
Mann’s fundamental expression here, I believe, is to put Pacino and DeNiro on the same level morally, which is essential- their opposition would be imbalanced without it. We spoke of “the law,” but both have a law. Both are “harsh”, both seek out the challenge, and in doing so, they achieve the fullness of their power. We talk about equality of rights, but I think that Mann actually gets to the point where he recognizes and communicates that equality of rights is a mirror of equality in violating rights. In other words, more simply, men live false lives, they hate and despise the privileged who live with a higher sense of responsibility, a strength of will and the capacity for long-range decisions-DeNiro says “one day I’m going to Fiji.” This is part of his greatness- he defers this goal though we know his wealth is enough now. He is ruthlessly faithful to his crew and will do anything to protect it: killing the off-shore drug investor, taking care of Val Kilmer after he is shot, carrying him at great risk to his own life, making sure that the plans to get all of them out of the city-he takes all the responsibilities upon himself. You see no one else do anything of the sort. He even goes after Waingro- who put all of them into risk of a life sentence or execution by killing one of the guards for the sake of killing and then lying about it, claiming “he was making a move.” Mann makes it clear that the guard is so disoriented he can’t even stand up straight. Waingro is a character of pure evil, he even knows it and revels in it “you don’t know who you are with, you are visiting with “the grim reaper”.” DeNiro recognizes his evil which he must destroy and so he deviates from his “escape” with the woman “he will go away with” to eradicate that evil. It is not revenge-it is justice. But, as a consequence, he is forced to live by the creed of “walking away.”
At that point, the movie flips and DeNiro, having executed Waingro, is trapped by Pacino. True to himself and despite his love for Amy Brennerman, he follows his law and walks away in 30 seconds—the rule he has lived by since prison.
The last scenes bear out the cat and mouse theme as they move quietly through the tall grass of the airport from which ironically DeNiro was to leave from, and then, only by virtue of a shadow thrown from the airport lights shining on DeNiro, does Pacino notice DeNiro’s attack and kills him. The “shadow” on Pacino and the “light” on DeNiro I think symbolically unite them finally as true brothers, and Pacino holds DeNiro’s hand as his brother as he passes away.
This is a fabulous movie, one that I would love to write much more about. The issues that Mann deals with are our issues: honesty, fidelity, responsibility, but most of all, the concept in this Age of the nature of Law. Law to the State, Law to oneself, Law to one’s creeds and beliefs.
As for the quality of the cinematography, it could not have been better. Mann is a consummate director and (I just can’t leave it out) he orchestrates and films the greatest bank robbery scene in all of modern film. At least no one will disagree with me about that.
David H. Relkin email@example.com””:http://wp:edit article