Looking Back: Backdraft (1991)

Every great Ron Howard movie has a single image that sums up what the film is about and what Howard is working to convey. The big moment in “Backdraft” is the slow motion shot of fireman Kurt Russell carrying a boy on his arm out of a room engulfed in flames. We see this through the eyes of William Baldwin, playing Russell’s not-good-enough younger brother. Time slows down for this scene, which, like everything else here, is not subtle and quite awesome to behold.

When released during the summer of 1991, “Backdraft” was praised for its still-astonishing firefighting sequences and ridiculed for its hokey plot. A resurgence of appreciation for the film came after 9/11, when the image of firefighters became more meaningful, painful and heartfelt than maybe ever before. “Backdraft” loves firefighters as much as “End of Watch” loves police officers, and it’s that touch that makes the earnestness of the screenplay endearing. The screenplay views firemen like cowboys, or with the same mix of genuine awe and rough and tumble gregariousness as the astronauts in “The Right Stuff.”

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In addition to Russell (excellent in one of his most robust performances) and Baldwin (charming in a role that once positioned him for bigger movie stardom), the all-star cast sinks their teeth into their roles with such persuasion, they made me believe in characters that could only exist in the movies. There’s also Scott Glenn, a reliably compelling veteran actor who nails the different shades to his role. Jennifer Jason Leigh is so much better than her flimsy part but she still makes the most of it. Much better is Rebecca DeMornay, investing real pain into her inevitable scenes as Russell’s unhappy wife.

Donald Sutherland manages to steal every one of his scenes as perhaps the film’s true villain, while Robert De Niro, as a most unlikely fire investigator, makes his scenes hypnotic. In fact, while De Niro’s lines about the nature of fire were likely groan worthy on the written page, his compelling work elevates the downright mystical monologues. This was De Niro at the point in his career when his appearance in anything guaranteed he would be amazing and he doesn’t disappoint here.

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Ron Howard’s glorious fire fighter epic is never subtle, over-plotted and often ridiculous. However, if you can accept the mythic approach to storytelling that Howard is clearly evoking, then the old fashioned storytelling, shameless melodrama, and on-the-nose dialogue feels appropriate. Frankly, I’d rather revisit Howard’s movie than something bland and forgettable like “Ladder 49.”

The narrative tells a hero’s journey of two competing brothers and how their lifelong game of one-upmanship allows them both to belatedly see the best in one another. There’s also a subplot about corruption within the department, a fat cat bureaucrat whose presence hints at a Faustian bargain and a mad arsonist who understands the nature of fire as an all consuming beast. This latter plot line is among the film’s best, as it allows Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro to dig into one another and bring weight to their juicy scenes.

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Fire isn’t merely the spectacle but it’s also a character, a force representing inner conflict, compromised souls and the embodiment of fear. This quality could have been irredeemably silly, were it not for how good the special effects are. The flames never resemble optical illusions or the slick pyrotechnics they are. Rather, it appears that Howard pried open the gates of hell and his cinematographer was fortunate enough to capture the fiery coils that pour out. Fire on film has rarely, if ever, looked this beautiful, sensual and frightening.

The on screen fires seems to spring from the passions, moral compromise and struggles of the characters. Accepting the movie on this plane of elevated “reality” allows it to play better than if expectations are geared for something more earthbound. The juxtaposition of a sex scene with a fire fight is not out of place, though Howard pulls back and plays the scene for a joke. Perhaps even he sensed when he was going too far over the top. Hanz Zimmer’s score is appropriately rousing and the action sequences grow in size and stakes over the course of the story. Even the training montage (set to a Bruce Hornsby tune that should have been a hit but wasn’t) feels just right.

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For all of its crowd pleasing shamelessness and slick filmmaking, the movie works, because of its persistent conviction and great performances. Howard has always been at his best with popcorn (his subsequent “Far and Away” is another cheesy masterpiece) and less so with prestige (the heartless “Ransom” and “The Missing” are gritty and self important in all the wrong ways). Howard’s upbringing and early acting career at the tail end of the Golden Age of Film has brought out nice sensibility to his filmmaking. He may have a thing for gee-whiz screenplay corn but, in his hands,  commercial filmmaking is rarely this much fun and produced with such top tier excellence.

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