Years ago when I started dating my wife I met her father. He was a retired fire chief from New York City. He told me many stories of his almost thirty five years as a fireman. When I first saw Backdraft those stories seemed to be played out before my eyes. Backdraft, directed by Ron Howard, is a homage the bravery of firefighters everywhere. Little details my father in law told me including coming out of a fire blacken and burnt, vomiting and then lighting up a smoke, breaking a car windows to run a hose through a car blocking a hydrant, the practical jokes in the firehouse, they are all in this movie. This is only natural since Backdraft was written by Gregory Widen of Highlander fame. He spent three years as a fireman and watched as his friend was killed by a backdraft.
A backdraft is a condition where the fire builds in heat and intensity finally exploding when the slightest hint of oxygen is introduced. It is also used in the film as a murder weapon and a character. The story centers on two brothers, both firefighter in the same Chicago Fire Company and deals not only with a series of fires but the incendiary relationship between the brothers.
Stephen ‘Bull’ McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) is a fireman. In taking on this noble profession he follows in his father’s footsteps. Stephen’s dad was killed years ago when an explosion literally blew him out of a building during what seemed like a routine run. Tagging along on that fatal day was Stephen’s younger brother Brian. A photo journalist caught a picture of the young boy holding his father’s smoldering helmet and it made the cover of news magazines. Years later Brian (William Baldwin) is somewhat of a drifter. After many failed attempts at finding some career he winds up back in Chicago to become a fire fighter. Stephen is certain his younger brother will fail at this like he has every other job he has had. While Stephen wanted to become a fire fighter he sees this as his brother’s last resort and the sibling animosity is renewed. Brian had bribed his way into a nice easy company but big brother has a long of connections in the department and makes sure Brian is assigned the toughest company in town, his company. Also in the company is John 'Axe' Adcox (Scott Glenn) who has been a fireman most of his life. He was in the company when the McCaffrey brothers lost their father and is seen largely as an uncle to the men. Axe has never taken a promotion; he prefers the roughest job in the company, carrying the hose to fight the fire face to face.
Brian manages to get out from under his brother’s command at work when he takes a position working with Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (Robert De Niro), the best arson investigator in Chicago. Shadow takes Brian to see the parole hearing of a notorious arsonist, Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland). Ronald may seem okay even rational until you mention fire. Then he gets as dreamy eyed as a man in love. For him fire is a living being, a friend, lover and enemy all at once. Rimgale discovers that the recent number of fire related deaths are all well planned executions. They seem to be targeting men in the city government. While the older McCaffrey is fighting the blazes young McCaffrey is helping to piece together who is setting them. At the center of the investigation is city alderman Martin Swayzak (J.T. Walsh). In order to get re-elected he has to make some serious budget cuts including closing several fire houses. Naturally this does not make him very popular with the firefighters.
With all this testosterone around the film needs some feminine presence. This comes with two characters. First there is Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the former girl friend of Brian who works as an aide for Swayzak. There is also Helen McCaffrey (Rebecca De Mornay) the estranged wife of Stephen. Jennifer is a young woman who is torn between two worlds. As a worker for Swayzak she has to support him with his budget cuts. Her love for Brian gives her more sympathy for how the lives of firemen are being put in danger by the cuts. Helen did not realize just how difficult it is to be the wife of a dedicated fire fighter. Her husband Stephen worked hard and played even harder. She was tired of sharing her husband with the job.
The script by Gregory Widen is admittedly not his best. The story drags in several places and contains too many themes better left to soap operas. The finally connection is not satisfying and is a bit too unbelievable to take. What does work here is how the firemen are presented. These are men that go against every sense of self preservation; they run into a fire while everyone else is running out. Having been very close to a man that did this for a living I see the dedication all fire fighters have to posses portrayed in this film. In this post 9-11 world the role of the fireman is greatly appreciated and the film is true to the sprit of these brave people. The fire scenes make the movie worthwhile and one of my favorites. A cameraman was dressed in fire resistant gear and actually filmed the scenes in the middle of real fire. Many real firemen and fire houses where used here to make sure these heroes are accurately presented.
Even thought the cast here are playing the same type of roles they have done many times before they still bring their A game to the table. Kurt Russell is very believable as the older brother who is simultaneously worried about his younger sibling and feed up with his drifting life style. William Baldwin has personal experience as the younger brother living in the shadow of a popular older brother. He has the engaging little wicked little boy smile that the ladies just love. Robert De Niro is underutilized here but as always takes on his role with intensity. Everything about Donald Sutherland’s role is completely creepy, perfect for the part, the way he can make his whole body language change when discussing fire is great to watch. Director Ron Howard is not afraid to take on a weaker script like this and still do his best. The pacing is somewhat uneven but overall the film flows well. His attention to detail and realism carries the film.
This was one of Universal’s first DVD releases back in December, 1997, back when DVDs began. For those of you out there that enjoy this film the new 15th anniversary edition is worth retiring your old copy. The actual film is presented much in the same way as the original edition. The video holds up with its 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The colors are a bit muted at times but overall the color balance is great with no signs artifacts or degradation. The Dolby 5.1 audio is still stunning. There is excellent channel separation that will enfold you as you sit watching the film. The sub woofer burst in as the explosion take over. The rear speakers typically provide a natural and realistic ambience. What places this edition apart are the extras. They are spread over both discs of the set with the 40 minutes of deleted scenes and introduction by Ron Howard on the first disc. One the second disc is enough material to keep you interested for many hours. Director Ron Howard, Producer Brian Grazer discuss what it took to take the story from the page to the screen. There is a featurette on how the cast went from initial reads through several workshops to get them into their roles as firefighters. Of course there is a featurette on the amazing stunts and footage of just how the scenes in the fire where done. Real firefighters are brought in telling their own stories and in a round table discussion with the crew. While this is not a perfect film it stands the test of time as a great piece of entertainment.