Twenty years ago today, I went to the movies and the course of my life changed forevermore.
To be certain, that is not an intentionally provocative overstatement—it is simple fact. The film was Michael Mann’s Heat, and the three hours I spent watching it that afternoon represent a temporal juncture, if you’ll permit the fanciful notion, between the me that was and the me I became thereafter. Heat is not my all-time favorite movie—though it certainly ranks high on the list—but I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that carries more emotional weight for me. I don’t even revisit it all that often; it’s a bit like a photo album that you cherish—that you’d be devastated to lose—yet seldom take down from that high shelf in the closet: You needn’t thumb through it regularly to appreciate what it represents; you simply take solace from the knowledge that it’s up there, safe and sound—a mnemonic repository where nostalgia can be compartmentalized lest it keep you from the necessary and inevitable business of forward motion.
I did re-watch Heat, however, in preparation for this post, and it’s as searing and suspenseful as ever. Maybe more so, in fact, as age and experience have allowed me to appreciate its emotional nuances and masterful storytelling in ways that were impossible in 1996. (I also got a thrill out of recognizing many of its L.A. locations—places I’ve passed more times than I can count in the fourteen years I’ve lived out here—some of which have changed considerably in two decades, and some that are frozen in time.) For those who may not remember, Heat was quite a big deal upon release for its on-screen pairing of two legendary thespians, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in what was essentially a grand-scale cops-and-robbers epic drawn from copious real-world research writer/director Mann had conducted over the course of his career. By the nineties, action was already taking precedence over characterization—and that’s only worsened in the CGI era (I don’t care how many esteemed year-end top-ten lists they make, those Fast & Furious movies—all seven of them—are beyond dreadful)—but Heat stands, both then and now, as a testament to the power of old-school storytelling by a master of the craft: It takes its time to bring us into its morally complex universe of deeply flawed, empathetic characters on their inevitable—and tragic—collision course with one another. As a director, Mann’s stylistic flourishes have occasional tendency to date his films (he’s responsible, after all, for that pastel-infused Miami Vice aesthetic that defined the color palette of the eighties), but, save for perhaps a few oversized flip phones, Heat exists in a timeless world unto itself; to spend an afternoon there is to visit a Los Angeles unlike the one you can actually visit, and unlike the one you’ve seen in other movies. Heat is, very simply, something spectacular to behold—every bit the classic both history and the culture have come to deem it.