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Not to Labor in Obscurity

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | September 17, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | September 17, 2009 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Backdraft and Ladder 49. Why would I do such a thing? As I hurriedly turned the channel one night to avoid being turned to stone by aggressively offensive I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, it struck me how few decent films have been made about firefighters. Excluding documentaries, there are no real classics about the lives of firefighters, though there are a few movies about other subjects, ranging from great to OK, in which firemen are featured as characters, such as Roxanne (great) and Frequency (okay). But considering how much attention mainstream film has afforded the daily lives and basic work of cops, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, reporters, private investigators, boxers, secret agents and starship captains, it’s surprising how few movies and television shows portray firefighters. (There are some great documentaries, however, such as 9/11, which began as a documentary about a probationary fireman and quickly turned into the only organized camera crew following NYC’s firefighters as they responded to the attacks.)

Beverage Consumed: If only to pander based on our theme, the Siberian Flamethrower, aka Siberian Fire. The Siberian is a vodka-based cocktail featuring Galliano liqueur, a yellow, anise-based digestif lacking the pungent licorice taste of Sambuca, Orzo, and other anise seed liqueurs. As noted by Wikipedia, Galliano has more of a vanilla character, making it more versatile for mixed drinks than its anise seed cousins. It’s also the distinctive ingredient in the Harvey Wallbanger, but we won’t hold that against it. Galliano offers a change of pace, but don’t rush out to get some unless you’re planning a party themed around the Siberian or the Harvey Wallbanger. To construct a Siberian Flamethrower, mix two parts vodka with one part Galliano over ice, then splash some cranberry juice on top and mix until cold.

If you’re planning a party themed around the Harvey Wallbanger, please stop and reevaluate your life.

Summary of Action: To test my thesis, I returned to the two “definitive” firefighter movies of recent years, Backdraft and Ladder 49. Neither film deserves much analysis: 1991’s Backdraft, the better of the two, is a by-the-numbers Ron Howard action melodrama featuring Kurt Russell as a tough Chicago fireman. Russell’s ne’er-do-well brother (William Baldwin) returns home to join Russell’s firefighting unit just as a murderous arsonist begins setting booby-trapped blazes around the city. Backdraft boasts an impressive collection of talent, including arson investigator Robert DeNiro, obligatory love interests Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca De Mornay, buddy-slash-tough guy Scott Glenn, and creepy, Hannibal-Lecter type arsonist Donald Sutherland. J.T. Walsh also has an interesting, though underwritten part as a slimy politician intent on cutting the fire department’s budget. Backdraft is entertaining enough and was a middling critical and commercial success, but the sub-plot in which DeNiro co-opts Baldwin to help solve the crimes is the only part of the film that isn’t an exercise in “just add water” moviemaking. Every plot development emerges straight from Hollywood’s Big Book of Action Movie Tropes, including the prodigal son, the conflicted brothers trying to live up to their father’s heroism, the rekindling of an old love, and the completely unsurprising “twist” ending where a trusted character turns out to be the villain. Backdraft is enjoyable as long as your brain is dialed firmly to “passively soak in pretty action movies and don’t think too hard about character motivation.” Backdraft is the Casino of firefighter films; we’re looking for The Godfather covered in soot and rescuing a baby.

Ladder 49 ain’t helping our search. Substantially inferior to Backdraft, Ladder 49 is structured in a more intriguing package but sags heavily in the telling. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta in a retrospective on the life of a young fireman, told through flashbacks while he lies unconscious and trapped in a burning warehouse as his fire company attempts to rescue him, led by their captain (Travolta). Phoenix is nearly always fascinating, even in formulaic tripe (see, e.g., We Own the Night), and he provides a steady center to Ladder 49 as the story traces Phoenix’s character from his missteps as a rookie fireman through his marriage to sweetheart Jacinda Barrett and his relationship with mentor Travolta. Phoenix and Barrett have some good moments as they embark on raising a family and trying to live a normal life even as Phoenix continues to risk his life on the job and sees comrades meet their deaths in the line of duty. As is often the case when ϋber-ham actors take dignified supporting roles, Travolta dials down his presence for a more subtle turn as the fire captain for whom rescuing one of his men is more important than the fate of a burning building. Barrett is luminous and inviting - if I came home from the firehouse and she were there waiting, I’d nail the front door shut and spend the next few days trying to break some records. In the end, however, Ladder 49 settles for the low middle - mildly competent entertainment with a respectful examination of the daily life of the firefighter and some high notes from its skilled cast.

Pondering the essential mediocrity of these films, I tried to remember a single definitive firefighter movie, any great firefighter movie, and realized there isn’t a single deserving one out there. John Wayne’s Hellfighters, an action movie built around a guy who puts out oil well fires, is considered a “classic” in some quarters, more for its star and vintage than for its own merit. And if Towering Inferno or Firehouse Dog is the answer to anything, then I’m pretty sure I forgot what the question was.

Even more surprising, the only serious television effort to fill the void is “Rescue Me,” a dark, grimy character study played out against a backdrop of the protagonist’s career as a fireman. Although it’s not my cup of tea, “Rescue Me” has gained a solid following among viewers and critics for Dennis Leary’s haunted, anti-hero portrayal of main character Tommy Gavin, and many in the firefighting community have hailed the series as the most realistic fictional depiction of life as a firefighter. (Another iconic television show featuring firefighters, “Emergency!”, aired in the 1970s. “Emergency!” primarily focused on two paramedics attached to a fire department, however, as well as the staff at a nearby hospital.)

It’s a pretty hard slap in cinema’s face when a basic cable network offers up the only serious dramatic examination of one of the most enduring and iconic hero images in our civilization. Long before 9/11 turned firefighters into domestic mercy commandos, firemen held a special place in our cultural mythos, whether as the selfless, gritty hero rescuing the elderly and children from a collapsing building or as a friendly neighborhood figure retrieving Aunt Mabel’s cat from a tree. Just like cops and soldiers, whose exploits fill a large wing of the cinematic canon, firemen spend their time doing tedious, routine work while waiting for an undesirable and dangerous event to threaten the people they are paid to protect. Their work is real and immediate and lends itself to compelling storylines and exciting action sequences.

There are logical reasons for cop shows to exceed fireman shows in pure numbers. Cop movies and television shows can be shot on a small budget, with special effects limited to the modest expense of staging shootouts and chase scenes. Many of the popular police procedurals these days don’t even have those expenses, admirably relying more on story, character, and suspense to drive the narrative. Cop shows also feature a more traditional and easily identifiable villain, a human perpetrator we can readily tab as an archetype of evil, as opposed to a faceless natural phenomenon that is actually our ally most of time but occasionally decides to destroy some of us.

On the other hand, from an action standpoint, firemen probably face real personal peril on routine basis more frequently than cops, and scenes involving burning buildings are surprisingly easy to stage on a limited special effects budget. Explosions and building fires are routinely featured in television staples such as Lost, Breaking Bad, and, of course, Rescue Me. These days, any studio action movie with a decent budget can afford to stage fire scenes, and most people feel an instinctive fear of facing an out-of-control blaze. The subject practically begs for a slew of movies exploring how fire departments handle co-worker romance, racial tensions, internal politics, gender desegregation, the familial stresses of dangerous work, mission creep caused by terrorism concerns, and a host of other genuine problems. There are firemen on boats, firemen who deal with bombs, and all kinds of other specialized issues providing potential narrative threads. Firefighting brings its own unique themes as well, considering that, unlike their heroic brethren policing the streets and manning the battlefield, firefighters go into the mouth of danger without weapons - their mission is strictly one of mercy, their reward the pay of a public servant with a healthy side order of poon tang.

So, o great monolith of Hollywood: Where is the firefighter’s The French Connection, his Saving Private Ryan? The material is there, the audience awaits. If we want to honor these folks, let’s give them something better than a puffy Scientologist, a lesser Baldwin, and Firehouse Dog.

Tastes Like: A warm flame in my mouth and belly, followed by a three-alarm buzz. Not for everyday drinking, but a nice change of pace.

Overall Rating: At this point, one out of ten Dalmatians. We need a larger sample, please.

Ted Boynton was picked last for adult kickball, mostly because sitting on home plate with a bottle of rye does not help the team. There’s no “I” in “team,” but there’s at least two in “inebriation.” Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected].