Tuesday 20 September 2011

Backdraft (1991)


Fire-fighters are pretty awesome, can we agree on that? They’ve chosen a job that can mean they go running into a flaming building, which could be rapidly collapsing as they go, wearing a lot of really heavy gear, to save someone who couldn’t find a way out before the fire blocked them in. Yes, fire-fighters are pretty awesome. Despite this, they are rarely the subject of films, certainly pre-9/11. There has only been a handful of big titles to give them sufficient focus, like Ladder 49, World Trade Center, Frequency, or the disaster great The Towering Inferno. However, the first one that people tend to think of when they think of fire-fighter movies is the all-star crack from the early 90s, directed by Ron Howard – Backdraft.

After years of drifting between jobs, Brian McCafferty (William Baldwin) finally decides to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a fire-fighter, although he hits a rough start when he is assigned to the company run by his brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell). The two have never got along, and Brian resents having to answer to his brother. Meanwhile, a series of fires are set, each seemingly started to kill a specific person. After losing his head at a fire, Brian accepts an offer to assist arson investigator Don Rimgale (Robert De Niro) in his attempts to catch the arsonist behind these fires.

Note: I apologise in advance for any puns or quips that involve fire, flames, heat or anything related. It’s as unintentional as it is unavoidable.

Gregory Widen knows how awesome fire-fighters are. He should, since he used to be one. Widen served as a working fire-fighter for three years before becoming a full-time writer, which he was able to do thanks to being able to sell his first script, Highlander, whilst still an undergraduate. During his time as fire-fighter, he witnessed a friend be killed by an explosive backdraft at a scene. This incident, as well as his general experiences on the job, went on to become the basis for his script for Backdraft, which would be his second feature screenplay. The screenplay itself is effectively three different stories – Detective Story, Family Drama, Monster Movie – all set within the high-pressure world of smoke-eaters. On the first level, the Detective Story, it’s a fairly straightforward run. A serial killer is on the loose, targeting specific people for destruction, and using a very specific modus operandi. What this killer does is orchestrate a fire hazard known as a backdraft (where a small amount of oxygen is introduced to a fire-torn, oxygen-starved environment to explosive effect), which then waits for the intended victim and literally engulfs them in an enormous fireball. With people being killed, it’s down to a veteran arson investigator and his new assistant to find the clues and track down the killer before he strikes again. Again, for the most part, pretty straightforward stuff.

The next level is the Family Drama. Here, it’s more about character development, which we like. When Brian McCafferty was a kid, he wanted to be just like his dad, a capable and dedicated fire-fighter. One day, when Brian accompanied his father on a call, Brian’s father was caught in a gas explosion and was killed. From then on, Brian has always had something of a fear of fire. Still driven by a desire to honour his dad’s memory, as well as the gung-ho example of his older brother Stephen, he trains up to become a rookie. Stephen, the lieutenant of Brian’s new company, thinks his brother doesn’t have what it takes, which will end up costing someone their life. The pair, who have never got along all that well, particularly after their father died, start cracking sparks against each other. They each think the other is holding on to some long-buried grudge, which starts to make working together very difficult. They each have their own faulty relationships with women, too. Stephen split from his wife a long time ago, but still has trouble reconciling himself to that, living on his dad’s old boat, like most brooding semi-alcoholics in the movies. Brian doesn’t fair much better, finding a bit of a frosty reception from an old flame who thinks he’s still too immature to be a decent prospect.

The third level is the Monster Movie side of things. In Backdraft, as you would expect, the monster being fought is the elemental force of Fire. A great deal of effort is put into creating the sense that fire is alive. When Don explains to Brian the reality of his job, and that of all fire-fighters: “It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats… and it hates.” Monster movies are all about a group of individuals coming together to fight a common, perhaps insurmountable foe, and the fire in this film absolutely carries that. It’s difficult to predict, impossibly brutal, and rages with a ferocity that levels buildings. It’s also very difficult to contain, since it can turn virtually anything into another torrent of conflagration. Upon finishing the script, Jennifer Jason Leigh apparently told director Ron Howard that she wished she could be the fire, since it had the best part… she’s not wrong.

The actual coming together of these different plotlines is rather fitting. Arson investigators will sometimes refer to the proverbial “Fire Triangle”, which requires three factors to be in place for a fire to ignite, these being oxygen, heat, and a source of fuel. This thinking seems to have factored into how Backdraft unfolds. Each different story aspect acts as a separate factor contributing to the Triangle, each one feeding into the other to create the explosive effects that we see onscreen. As it is, though, these different factors can seem a little imbalanced at times. The Family Drama parts, though important and holding some good stuff, simply can’t stand up to the intrigue of the Detective Story or the thrilling tension of the Monster Movie. Stephen’s problems with his estranged wife, Helen, do hold some interest, given that they speak directly to Stephen’s increasingly despondent nature. However, Brian’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer, serves little real purpose, with things not so much being tied up as cut off. It feels rather tacked-on, something to justify the need for a plot device.

Things are much better served in the Detective Story, following the two-man investigation unit as they try to find out who’s behind these killings. The character of Don Rimgale, an actual person, is far more intriguing than most people in the familial concerns of the film. A former fire-fighter-turned-investigator, he’s a fierce guy, thorough and methodical. He’s also got a long memory, as evidenced by his appearance at the parole hearing for serial fire-bug Ronald. Ronald has convinced the psychologist and parole board that he’s a changed man, but two minutes with Don and it’s clear he’s far from rehabilitated. The use of the Ronald character serves as an interesting one because it’s him that Brian must go to for help in finding the last piece of the puzzle. There is a distinctly Silence of the Lambs feel about this scene, owing to the entirely creepy (though for completely different reasons) presence of a violent killer being interviewed by a rookie investigator, with something of a quid pro quo exchange happening. The fact that Silence of the Lambs was released earlier in the same year may or may not be a coincidence. Just to make things weirder, Scott Glenn appears in both films.

By far, the most effective scenes are those under the Monster Movie banner, where the good guys are called in to fight the fiery beast at great risk to themselves. Ron Howard wanted to achieve that sense of being in the cage with the animal, so had a cameraman fire-suit up and wander through the carnage with a handycam. It’s sparingly-used, thank God, but it’s effective nonetheless. Being able to see the fires blazing so close to our heroes, and us, goes a long way to making us feel the fear in its presence. We also get glimpses of what happens when the animal strikes, the devastation to body and mind when someone turns their back on it for that split second.

Performances throughout are a mixed-bag. On one end, there are the strong performances, coming from those you’d expect - Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro and Donald Sutherland. Russell gives Stephen a simmering intensity, a jovial nature that barely contains a fierce temper and gung-ho sensibility that borders on the suicidal. De Niro’s Don Rimgale is a no nonsense kind of guy, and De Niro looks like he carries the weight of a backstory we barely see, but only get pieces of. Few people can show so much with so little like De Niro. And Sutherland’s Ronald is thoroughly creepy. Not particularly intimidating, or even imposing, but he can be very aptly described as a fire fanatic, a wide-eyed enthusiast, someone who loves to let the beast out of its cage just to see what horrific damage can be done. His half-laughing admission about burning little girls and old ladies is quite unsettling.

Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh do what they can to give equally decent shows, but suffer a little from having the focus be primarily on the relationship between Brian and Stephen. Leigh especially gets short-changed, removed from proceedings in a sort of neat, but hardly satisfying conclusion. William Baldwin is perhaps the weakest on show, but it’s still not a bad performance really. He certainly throws himself into the physical demands of the role, but just isn’t always entirely there for the rest of it.

There is one thing that I find unsettling about the film, though. There is a bit of a lack of real resolution in things, despite the appearance of so. The culprit is uncovered, but only partially dealt with. The one responsible for the deaths of three people, along with the attempted murder of three more, and severely burning another, effectively gets away with it. It would seem that more focus is placed on that which served as the catalyst for the crimes, an act of under-handed dealings. This initial crime is dealt with more decisively than the much more violent and dangerous one, which seems to get swept under the rug in the spirit of some moderate notion of honour. Are we to accept that the first crime is the one more deserving of resolution, despite the other crimes being more public and with a higher body count? I understand what the film is trying to say about the importance of a fire-fighter’s job and how they should not be taken for granted, and I understand how things have been wrapped up, but this is not so easy to accept in light of the story. Even most of the relationship woes are settled by a single and decisive turn, with the others being simply ended. In the end, it does feel a little uneasy.

Overall, Backdraft is an engaging and effective thriller, and goes towards showing fire-fighters to be the heroic figures that they are. However, this idea of heroism and honour somewhat clouds the reality of the plot, offering only half-conceived conclusions to what was a pretty good mystery show. The direction is decent, and some of the performances are damn good, but you can’t ignore the feeling of a story barely covered with some level of emotional bias.

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