DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
“It’s a living thing, Brian. It eats, it breaths, it hates…” Well, I’m not sure about the last bit, but Robert De Nero’s, as Donald “Shadow” Rimgale, description of a fire was apt, if not a little melodramatic. But that is part of the charm of Backdraft, is that if portrays fire as a living entity, a beast to be snuffed out and the fire fighter is a hunter, with the best being obsessive, maybe a kin to Moby Dick’s, Captain Ahab.
I must admit, I really wanted to give this film 10/10, but I can’t. I love it and I’ve loved it since the day I first saw it 19 years ago, but it is not perfect. The story of two brothers and their fractious relationship, Kurt Russell as the tough but reckless fire Lt. and Steven Baldwin as his loser little brother, is old hat and little hammy, but it still works. It’s still a good interpretation of a clichéd situation.
But the fire fighters are portrayed perfectly, with a real understanding of the profession, along with a respect for those tough heroes. They’re not always nice, they’re not always sane but they do try to always be there, as the real events of September 11th would prove ten years later. As a fire fighting movie, this stands up as being the best I’ve ever seen, showcasing several aspects of the profession from the ‘Glory Boys’ and ‘Smoke Eaters’ on the scene to the investigators in the aftermath. The film is primarily pitched as a thriller, with the eponymous ‘Backdraft’s’ being engineered by an arsonist to reap revenge upon several corrupt accountants who have being complicit in shutting down fire houses, leading to the deaths of firemen.
But that is just the narrative to drive the plotline to some of the most fantastical and spectacular fire scenes to date. Granted, as the years pass the effects do start to show their age but in the end, this was the film which started it all. Made at a time on the cusp of the CGI revolution, this is a film made up of practical fire effects like nothing we had seen before. But there in lies a problem.
The effects are spectacular but they go a little too far, and whist on hand the film tricks you into believing the fire and feeling the intense realism of the scenes, they are simply impossible and defy the laws of physics. But it is in the next conceit that they become workable. Backdraft is a film where fire is the beast and as such it is an actor within the movie. And its acting is surely worthy of an Oscar, and nominated for three, it was, well, sort of. The presence of the fire is palpable and though it remains realistic in its application, its tone and implications are a little fantastical, but even that could be explained away with the personal perceptions of each fire fighter depending on their views.
Anyway, we can go on about this all day, but the simple facts are; There’s fire and it’s cool! There’ s fire with a soul which is even cooler! There’s melodrama with isn’t always cool but works here just fine and there’s a realistic portrayal of U.S. fire fighters and when you put all this together you get the one of kind Backdarft, which I would hold up as the definitive fire fighter movie of all time.