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I’m Ready For My Close Up: Firefighters On Film and TV

I remember going to Universal Studios when I was younger and being on the scene of Backdraft. I had no idea what a backdraft was beforehand, but learning about it terrified me. Of course, if you’re considering a fire science degree, you probably went on that tour and thought “cool!” or recognized immediately what you wanted to be when you grew up.

Entertainment fulfills a variety of roles. What’s terrifying to some is inspiring to others. Sometimes you just want to unwind with something mindless. Whatever the role may be, there’s innumerable ways to see how the lives of firefighters have been depicted on both the big and little screens.  While most films portray the lives of urban firefighters, a few offer other unique perspectives as well. Perhaps you’ll find something here you’ve never seen before or maybe there’s a classic that deserves re-watching. Not to distract you from your studies, make sure your homework’s done, then get that Netflix queue ready.

Drama

The aforementioned Backdraft (1991) is a must see film, and not just for firefighters. Set in Chicago, the film explores the dangerous profession of urban firefighting, as well as how politics and the City Council can exploit the workers. Ron Howard’s film staring Kurt Russel, William Baldwin, and Robert DeNiro is the highest grossing film of all time that deals with the subject matter. Other popular and recent films like Ladder 49 (2004) and World Trade Center (2006) were certainly inspired by Backdraft.

Going back in time a bit, Jon Wayne stared in Hellfighters (1968). Odds are, you know what you’re going to get with a John Wayne vehicle: perhaps a bit outdated, but still certainly worth the time you’re watching it. Likewise The Towering Inferno (1974) is another oldie staring Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, featuring firefighters that battle a blaze in a 138-story skyscraper after an electrical system is overloaded.

On the supernatural side of things is Stephen Spielberg’s Always (1989), featuring Richard Dreyfuss as an aerial firefighter, who dies in crash, but can still “inspire” the living in an agitated state of limbo. It’s a bit more romantic than the other films mentioned, but depicts the plight of the aerial firefighter as opposed to the urban.

Documentary

The most well know documentary about firefighters of recent years is probably 9/11 (2002). The insightful film, recorded during a tragic moment in our country’s history, shows the perspective of a first responder and how quick one has to be to a call to action.

Burn (2012) is a recent documentary that follows the lives of firefighters in Detroit. Most recently, Steve Buscemi’s documentary A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY (2014) recently premiered on HBO. Though not a documentary, Firefighter (1986) was a made-for-TV movie based on the story of Cindy Fralick, the first female firefighter at the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Comedy

In Roxanne (1987), Steve Martin stars as a small town fire chief in this modern interpretation of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. Fire Serpent (2007) is a cheesy sci-fi thriller written by William Shatner. Not necessarily a film that involves fire fighters, rather the element itself takes on a mythological form. Likewise, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really a comedy (in some realms it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece), but let’s just say that the special effects in this 1966 film based on the novel by Ray Bradbury haven’t really stood the test of time.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) (Adam Sandler and Kevin James) is definitely  a movie on the goofy side. Two Brooklyn firefighters marry each other to take advantage of the benefits of being wed. It won’t be the most enlightening film you’ll ever see, but is at least worth a couple laughs.

Television

The fast-paced nature of the profession provides endless story-lines for television shows about firefighters. In the late 90s, Third Watch (1999 – 2005) premiered. It is probably the first on the more rough around the edges shows compared to the lighter fare of the 70s and 80s, such as Emergency! (1972-1977) and Code Red (1981-1982).

Continuing in the vein of more realistic firefighter drams is Rescue Me (2004-2011). What began as Denis Leary’s ode to the NYPD quickly grew into it’s own, with well-rounded characters balancing their personal lives and their uncompromising job on the force. Most recently, Chicago Fire (2012- ) also details the day to day lives of urban firefighters, as well as paramedics. The relatively unknown cast still creates a compelling and unpredictable show.

As you can see, firefighters have been depicted in various roles throughout cinema’s history. Nearly every major name in Hollywood has attempted to do something to promote the profession. It’s not an easy topic to accurately portray, but whether it’s a comedy or drama, documentary or television series, there’s no limit to the creative possibilities in representing your future career.

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