Heat was marketed as a tense, action-packed heist flick starring two of our greatest living actors, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, sharing the screen for the first time in their long and storied careers. Instead, writer-director Michael Mann made an epic, three-hour. contemplative crime drama in which the two acclaimed actors only share two brief scenes: the iconic diner scene halfway through and another at the very end. Mann’s decision to keep De Niro’s Neil McCauley, a veteran criminal, and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, a determined cop, apart for most of the film pays off because the narrative construction by its very nature emphasizes the duality of the characters.
Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist? It’s not a simple question with a simple answer, and it’s been on my mind ever since I revisited the film. One could make a strong argument for either McCauley or Hanna to be either one. Traditionally, we’re drawn to detectives, but sympathetic criminals have captured our hearts as well, so that metric alone can’t be used to identify the protagonist. In a cat-and-mouse story, are you on the side of the cat or the mouse? Is it even clear who’s the cat and who’s the mouse here? From a meta perspective, it’s interesting to note that Mann based Hanna on his friend Chuck Adamson, a real-life Chicago cop, so wouldn’t he have a natural inclination to make Hanna the hero? When considering who the protagonist of the story is, though, I saw some stark differences in the characters’ professional and personal lives that seemed to favor McCauley.
Notably, McCauley brings with him an entire crew of memorable characters. Val Kilmer, as Chris, has his own subplot. Cherrito (Tom Sizemore) is the reason Hanna gets on their scent in the first place (and he gets more focus in deleted scenes). Waingro (Kevin Gage), the newbie, goes rogue and betrays the crew. Dennis Haysbert’s Breedan has a stealth introduction isolated from the rest of the film until he joins the action. The narrative weight afforded to these characters appears to prioritize McCauley’s life of crime over Hanna’s life of law, with his relatively unmemorable colleagues. Mykelti Williamson as Drucker gets some good scenes with Ashley Judd as Chris’s wife, Charlene, in the second half of the film but no real character or character development on the level of McCauley’s crew.
On a personal level, Mann finds more balance between the two characters. McCauley begins a romance with Eady (Amy Brenneman) that requires him to lie to her about what he does, a secret he’s right to be wary about given Eady’s reaction when she finally discovers it. Hanna’s work takes a similar toll on his relationship with his wife and daughter (Diane Venora and Natalie Portman, respectively). We see that his marriage is deteriorating as his wife Justine accepts that the job will always come before her, a realization his daughter Lauren also seems to have since she tries to kill herself — in his hotel room, as if to send him a message. While Hanna’s family life is much richer than his work life, Lauren’s story is still underdeveloped. Even so, much as one could imagine a film that focused solely on the criminal and his crew, one could imagine a film focused solely on this cop whose job ruins his family.
When it comes to deciding whose story the movie is, I look at each character’s goals and notice something interesting. McCauley has goals outside of Hanna. McCauley just wants to do crimes, and while Hanna is technically “in his way,” he’s actually irrelevant to him. Apart from the amusing scene where McCauley deliberately stages a meeting to throw Hanna off the scent, he makes no active moves against Hanna. Like Don Draper, he doesn’t think about him at all. McCauley poses much more of an obstacle to himself because he lives by a code that dictates that he must be willing to “walk out on anyone and anything in thirty seconds flat if he feels the heat” — i.e., Hanna —“around the corner.” Naturally, he’s forced to make a fateful choice in the end, and he chooses his code over his love. His death closes a tragic character arc, which seemingly marks McCauley as the film’s protagonist.
Hanna, on the other hand, exists to hunt, as his wife aptly assesses: he needs prey, and McCauley is his prey. He has no goals besides catching McCauley (except maybe keeping his family together, which doesn’t seem high on his list of priorities). Although he’s hunting McCauley, he has a great respect for, even kinship with him. The respect certainly goes both ways, as is clear from the diner scene, but because Hanna is in the position of officially sanctioned power, his acknowledgment that McCauley may be his equal in some way holds more weight. He, too, stays true to his word not to hesitate when the time comes, but he holds McCauley’s hand as he dies. He doesn’t let him die alone, which is not only an act of kindness to McCauley but also a cathartic moment for himself as he shares a moment of connection with the one person on the planet who may truly understand him. A man he was just forced to kill. After seeing him isolated from so many others close to him, this act closes a tragic character arc, which seemingly marks Hanna as the film’s protagonist.
It’s possible to view the film from either McCauley’s or Hanna’s perspective and find each equally rewarding. Does the fact that Hanna is ancillary to McCauley’s story while McCauley is integral to Hanna’s story mean that McCauley takes narrative precedence or that Hanna actually holds the film together? Mann’s film challenges the very idea of protagonist and antagonist, with each character fitting both roles simultaneously. Few films attempt to represent this level of character complexity, and fewer still achieve it with such elegance.