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The thing about most movies is the take away. What it is we remember and talk about after it’s over. Was it an action scene, or romantic tryst, or a giant creature from outer space? Often it is a character, one we identify with or has an honestly moving arc that draws great emotion from the viewer. Or perhaps it is a piece of music that swept us into the world the director has envisioned. In rare films, it is sometimes the visuals themselves, a moment of pure movie magic that elevates the experience. In Ron Howard‘s ode to the firefighter, Backdraft, it is in fact the fire.
Fire starts and ends the film, a living, breathing menace in the story that is as much a character, if not more, than any actor in the cast. There is no time in the film when its presence isn’t felt, when people in the movie aren’t either talking about it, understanding it, deifying it, or fighting it. When you finish watching, it is fire that stays with you, its magnificent representation on screen, and its impact on the lives it literally touches in the story.
It begins when fire consumes the life of a brave firefighter in an apartment blaze, an accident that one of the man’s two young son witnesses and subsequently become momentarily famous for when a photograph of his reaction is put on the cover of LIFE magazine. That boy grows up to become Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin), his life forever affected by the event, leaving him mostly aimless, even trying but giving up on firefighting. Eventually though, when stereo sales and snowmobiles tours don’t pan out, he makes it through the academy and gets assigned to Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department, the same department where his older brother Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) is the lieutenant. Needless to say, they aren’t the closest of siblings.
Meanwhile, Fire Department Captain Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (Robert De Niro) works as an arson investigator, a long-time veteran of the job who is now on the hunt of a recent string of fires that are incorporating a fire phenomena called a backdraft, where a rapid introduction of oxygen into an oxygen-depleted environment causes a massive combustion. Rimgale suspects and is gathering evidence to suggest the fires are in fact criminal acts and resemble fires committed by pyromaniac Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), a pyromaniac who used a similar technique years before and is now in prison.
On top of that, Bull is facing city hall cutbacks that leave his crew often fighting major fires without support or backup. He learns that Martin Swayzak (J. T. Walsh) is an alderman on the Chicago City Council looking to get elected as mayor and has been getting paid off by corrupt contractors to shut down firehouses and turn them into community centers. It causes serious conflict, especially since Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman Brian was once and now again pursuing, works for the alderman.
And there lies one of the issues that bog down parts of this otherwise exciting and well-directed film, the sheer overload on empty plot points that don’t really add to the central story itself, which should have and could have been far more fleshed out. The dynamic between De Niro and Sutherland is some of the most compelling aspects of the film, these two iconic actors squaring off giving the movie much of its edge. The minor subplots involving Leigh and with Rebecca De Mornay as the embattled wife of Stephen, who has barely any screen time other than to incite or reign in the troubled firefighter. Both these women are wasted and a love scene on a firetruck is cringeworthy.
Still, Russell is well cast, as is the career-wide underused Scott Glenn playing John “Axe” Adcox, a fellow firefighter who is equally frustrated by the cutbacks and the dangers he and the others face. Howard does well to give the role of the firefighter a lot of respect, detailing the daily life in a series of behind the scenes-esque glimpses, if not with some Hollywood flair. But no matter these moments and the thrilling musical score by the prolific Hans Zimmer, who was at this time on the cusp of becoming one of modern cinema’s most acclaimed composers, it is the fire that keeps Backdraft the reason to watch.
While professionals and experts have long denounced the authenticity of the fire and the fire-fighting techniques, including the manner in which fire is depicted as sort of living entity, as an entertainment, there’s no denying the spectacle that Howard creates with flame. While ultra-realism would render the movie unwatchable as real firefighters work in near total visual obscurity when engaged in structure fires, for the sake of drama, Howard (and screenwriter Gregory Widen) paint with emotion rather than credibility and as such craft the fire into a sort of screen villain that seems to gain strength, strategize and become loaded with vengeance. Howard gives it powerful personality and films it in many frighteningly diverse ways from roiling oceans of super-heated orange to spiraling pinnacles of deadly twisters, all of them accompanied by otherworldly hissing and guttural howls as if it were a demonic, breathing beast.
Backdraft is a well-crafted thriller for most of its lengthy 137 minutes but would be a better experience with a some of that excised, including all of the political subplots and more attention to the women of the story. That said, Howard’s innovate direction and a few strong performances make this early 90s action firefighter thriller one to catch.