With director Michael Mann’s new film Public Enemies in cinemas, and because of my interest in Batman, here’s a brief introduction to how the latest (and greatest) Batman film picks up on lots of elements from Heat, Mann’s adult crime drama.
You can see it even from the DVD back cover of Heat, where we see Al Pacino standing with shotgun ready, resembling a moment where Gary Oldman’s character Lieutenant Gordon heroically faces the Joker. Or try the opening sequence, a carefully orchestrated and clearly shot armed robbery of a delivery van* in broad daylight by a team wearing white hockey masks. The difference is that in The Dark Knight the Joker’s bank robbery (which opens the film) goes perfectly, with no loose ends (if you have seen it you know what I mean) – while the member of the gang in Heat who manages to escape the rest of the gang becomes an important seed of the group’s downfall.
Battling with hearts and minds
Moving towards some of the big themes of the films, both give an account of a struggle between two factions, with high stakes for each side – but ultimately, these are struggles based on principles. In Heat Robert De Niro plays professional criminal Neil McCauley, who goes after big “scores” with his crew, but who becomes conflicted. He insists that he will live a life without ties – where everything and everyone can be left behind in 30 seconds if the “heat” is on to them. Yet while this is the life he has built for himself, and accepted, he starts working towards another one, longing to leave behind all bank “jobs” and escape with Eady. He is finally spotted by Pacino’s Lt Hanna while trying to clear up loose ends, the betrayal of his own principle – in fact it is precisely the feelings of loyalty (and anger) that he imagined he could ignore which make him go back, and stop him cutting loose from the city at the crucial moment. His philosophy would have worked, but was apparently unliveable – he could not leave behind the relationships he started: it would be denying the worth he felt they really had – in a way, denying himself. This poses the interesting question to us: when the pressure is on, what or who really matters to us? What are we willing to make a stand for, even when it makes things messy and difficult to deal with?
Similarly Lt Hanna (McCauley’s nemesis) attempts to manage his own relationships in quite a brutal way, putting his job first (his wife confronts him with this idea that this hunt for prey is the “only thing you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through”) – but the difference between the two is Hanna’s fierce, unwavering loyalty to his city and his police department, and to capturing the gang.
In The Dark Knight the ideological battle is more sinister. It seems that the Joker, fascinated with the appearance of the hero Batman, is trying to prove that people in general, and even those who consider themselves to be “in the right”, are not really good, and can be turned towards evil if their circumstances change, and they feel betrayed, or afraid, or come under some other kind of stress, such as suffering an unjust loss or trauma. Unnervingly he seems to face us with the question: “what will it take for us?” He seems to prove in the film that people are fragile and that chaos is easily achieved, as reinforced by his final words in the film, to Batman: “You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity – all it takes is a little push!”
However the Batman manages to restore order and bring an end to the ongoing terrorism, and it seems that (although he comes close) he does not “break”. He proves to the Joker that it is possible to continue resisting evil (even under great strain) without becoming twisted and evil, like the DA does – although for Batman to do this it comes at great personal cost. It is as if the line that the DA crosses in taking a life makes him irreparable, even irredeemable, whereas Batman can remain heroic because he never succumbs totally and kills.
Defending the city
Heat makes a lot of comparing the lives, quality of relationships and motivations of the LA cops with those of the criminals they are after. Again, heroism comes at a personal cost, which at times must be unbearable for Lt Hanna, whose wife loses patience with him and whose step-daughter suffers too from his absence.
In parts it seems the cops in Heat are trying to defend their city with as much self-sacrifice and obsession as Bruce Wayne shows in the recent Batman films. It’s an all-consuming quest for justice which requires ugly action, tough strategy, careful planning, sleepless days and long nights. In many ways you can understand Heat as a revenge tragedy. The police see it as “You kill our men, you disrespect the law – don’t expect us to hesitate in shooting back and taking you down”. Los Angeles has got to be safe, and dead cops have to be avenged.
As in the comics, Batman is also bound by a code and an absolute commitment to protecting his city. Director Christopher Nolan’s take on the character is that he acts out of a belief in the fact that there are good people in the city, which he can not let be swallowed up and bullied by the criminal element. This was a big theme in Batman Begins** (the first in this revamped series), where a young Bruce had to get to a position in which he could trump the “bullies” by creating his own intimidating presence, thereby using their own weapon against them. He is simultaneously purging the city from the clutches of corruption and ransoming the city for society to be able to function. This is why the Joker’s random destruction is so threatening, totally undermining order and the city’s infrastructure (eg the police, the mayor’s office, high society, the prison system, and memorably, the hospitals).
Bruce dedicates himself to cleaning up the city, carrying on the proud tradition of his parents (like a knight archetype who reveres and continues the work of past martyred saints – it is not too far-fetched to make this the equivalent of a holy cause for him); and in The Dark Knight, he enlists other “knights of the realm” to stand guard alongside him, deepening his partnership with Gordon and the police force, utilising big business, even the city hall.
While The Dark Knight seems to cover a lot of intellectual and mythological angles on this battle against corruption, Heat is a more personal tale, tugging at our emotions as we see the way circumstances, words and actions bring tension between families, and hurt partners. The gang gamble on making some big scores, to support their chosen lives, but the promises they make and break are significant beats of the story – and the horrific final shootout has reverberations on all those close to McCauley’s crew, and beyond. I salute the writers and directors for making such fascinating worlds to lose ourselves in, and whose strong characters create gripping ideological (and physical) struggles in each film.
(NB: Heat clocks in at 164 mins, so it feels like quite a long watch. If you like it, Al Pacino is also interesting to watch in crime drama Carlito’s Way (1993), a film which is slow-burning, leading to a thrilling 20-25 minutes finale section, as Carlito makes his run for freedom from his past gangster life, similar to De Niro’s final run in Heat. I won’t recommend the film wholeheartedly though due to gratuitous sex and nudity, just to let you know.)
*The Dark Knight also has an armoured delivery van which is attacked as the focus of one of the Joker’s crimes, and so the similarities continue! British director Christopher Nolan acknowledges that Heat influenced him, and it probably was the reason he went for the kind of freeway landscapes he did for the big chase scene, to show a similar kind of world: a heavily built-up, industrial city.
Other similarities between the two films: Incredibly strong casts, and both films have brilliant sound, building tension through it using some strikingly similar long drone sounds.
**In Batman Begins there is a scene which reminds us how utterly irrational and evil extremist terrorist groups can be. While razing Wayne Manor to the ground, villain Ra’s reveals his motivation – a plot to burn the city down, as was done in the days of ancient conquest – all in order to produce a “better” world afterwards. I love how the language sounds kind of earnest and rational, but when you think about what they are saying it is utterly evil and mad! This reminds us that all evil is ultimately irrational, coming out of a faulty, broken understanding of the world and ourselves, and we can’t ultimately explain it away, or excuse it: it just is wrong.