This is one of those “they don’t make them like that anymore” movies, an unabashed love letter to firefighters that might as well have been made sixty years ago.
It is irony-free, which is fine — certainly, we could all use a vacation from irony and its lite version, snarkiness. But it makes the mistake of allowing its resolute decency to idealize the characters. That can make a heartwarming Saturday Evening Post cover, but makes the movie seem one-dimensional, if touching. The relentlessly wholesome characters all blend together, all as adorable as Ewoks. The only dramatic tension comes from the fires, which begin to blend together, too.
We first see Jack (Joaquin Phoenix, looking chunky and snaggle-toothed) heroically saving a man from a fire at great risk to himself. Then he is injured and trapped in the burning building. And we go back in time to see what brought him to that moment.
Jack shyly enters the firehouse to introduce himself to the chief (John Travolta, also looking chunky — they must have had quite some caterer on this film). After some good-natured hazing, he is one of the guys.
Jack meets a beautiful girl named Linda (Jacinda Barrett of The Human Stain). They fall in love, get married, and have children. She worries terribly that Jack will be injured or killed, but understands (most of the time) why he loves being a firefighter and why he cannot take a safer job.
With one exception, every one of the characters is kind, honorable, dedicated, thoughtful, and devoted. Actually, the exception is all those things except maybe kind; he’s a little bitter and cynical. But the only bad guy in the movie is the fire. The characters are all so decent that they are practically interchangeable, and that keeps them at more of a distance from us than the movie intends.
It’s fine to be sincere, but the film is unnecessarily obvious, with “That’s Just Love Sneaking Up on You” as a couple falls in love and that wavery Irish flute music to strum our heartstrings. But the fire-fighting sequences are excitingly staged and I’ll freely admit to a couple of tears and the sense that I am privileged to share the planet with people of such honor, courage, and dedication.
Parents should know that the movie has frequent and very intense peril and violence relating to firefighting. Characters are badly wounded and some are killed. There is brief strong language. Characters drink a lot including drinking games and drinking to excess. Alcohol is portrayed as bonding and healing, and a way to prove oneself as “one of the guys.” The movie includes a mild gay joke, some sexual references, and a non-explicit sexual situation. Strengths of the movie include the portrayal of diverse characters who are loyal and committed to each another, though all of the firefighters are male.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Jack took risks even after he had a wife and children who depended on him. What kind of people become fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, and others who face death every day? Families should also talk about how people who see terrible tragedies handle the stress. Notice the use of humor, sometimes rather wild and outrageous, which can be the best adaptive mechanism for dealing with terribly difficult situations, the comment about finding God, and the idea that “we honor Dennis” by “sticking together.”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the underrated Ron Howard film about firefighters, Backdraft and the classic disaster film, The Towering Inferno. They may also appreciate other movies about people who risk their lives on the job like The Perfect Storm and Gardens of Stone.