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"Is it hot in here to anyone else?"

Donald "Shadow" Rimgale: In a word, Brian, what is this job all about?
Brian McCaffery: Fire.
Donald "Shadow" Rimgale: It's a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates.
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Backdraft is 1991 American action-drama film directed by Ron Howard and written by Gregory Widen. The film stars Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro and Scott Glenn. Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, Hardy Patel, Brian Jaramillo and JT Walsh co-star in the film.

In The Windy City, young Brian McCaffery (Baldwin) is a man going from one dead-end job to another, until he gets it in his head to be a firefighter alongside his brother, Stephen "Bull" McCaffery (Russell), and the men of the Engine 17 crew. Brian's past precedes him; he was photographed at the scene of his firefighter father's death by arson, as he watched from the ground. Now, in the present day, another arsonist has killed two city officials, and after Brian is transferred to the investigative division of the Fire Department, it is up to him and arson investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale (De Niro) to sniff out the arsonist before anyone else is torched.

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Not to be confused with Internet Backdraft.


This movie contains examples of:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: None of the firefighters wear turnout trousers to protect their legs, which may look like an error, but it's actually because Chicago didn't wear that gear until 2006. Until then, they wore this. It's called a long coat and hip boots, or three-quarter boots. It was an older style of firefighting gear used in North America in most of the 20th century that consisted of a coat that went to the knees and a pair of rubber boots that had foldable sections that could be pulled up to the thigh. Most cities switched to modern gear in the 1990s, such as New York City, which switched in 1994, and Boston, which switched a year later. Chicago was the last to switch.
    • Due to the Chicago Fire Department's stubborn adherence to this type of protective equipment, firefighters colloquially refer to these boots as "Chicago Boots."
    • Strangely enough, one thing the characters do manage to do wrong, especially Steven McCaffery, is leave their boots rolled down inside burning buildings, a BIG no-no back when firefighters commonly wore this gear since it leaves the legs even less protected than they already inherently were with this type of gear.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The crew are seen to be taking another call just before the credits roll.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Trychtichlorate, which is utilized by the arsonist as the main accelerant for his rampage. It is both incredibly good at its job and it turns out that Engine 17 had so much of it lying around because it had done some painting of the station earlier. Stephen taking some that was left over to paint his boat is what gives Brian an Eureka Moment (after fearing his brother is the arsonist and confronting him).
  • Artistic License:
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    • Real fires tend to involve blinding amounts of smoke that force firefighters to feel around for objects and people with their hands and feet. Real Life firefighters gave this film a pass, though, admitting that a screen full of dark billowing smoke doesn't really make for a visually exciting experience. However, you can safely assume that nothing you see a fire do in this movie could/would ever happen in Real Life.
    • Real firefighters roll their eyes during Robert De Niro's "It's a Living Thing" monologue, because fire is definitely not. The monologue does make some cool drama, though.
    • Averted with Axe and Bull's funeral at the end. Real life firefighters have commented that for a firefighter killed on duty, this is exactly how a funeral goes.
  • Ax-Crazy: Ronald Bartel
    Shadow: What do you want to do to the world, Ronald?
    Ronald: Burn it, burn it all.
  • Benevolent Architecture: While chemical factories would have pipes, none of them are greased for sliding.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with the second probie, Krizminski. He ignores Bull's orders and punches directly into a hot room, triggering another backdraft right in his face. He barely survives, but ends up horribly burned and disfigured.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Stephen's is very strong regarding Brian, though the latter doesn't realize it and thinks his brother is just giving him a hard time and being unfair to him. The reason Stephen doesn't want Brian to be a firefighter is not due to lack of belief in his brother but because he's afraid that the fire will get him. It's especially clear in Brian's first fire, when Stephen is visibly shaken when Brian is nowhere to be found, and his reaction afterward.
    Stephen: I told you to stay right be-fucking-side me, Brian!
  • Big "NO!": Brian when he sees Bull and "Axe" Adcox fall. Adcox hits a barrel on the way down and dies instantly. Bull ends up half-impaled on wreckage; he survives the fall but dies on the way to the hospital.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Brian decides to remain a firefighter despite the fact that both his brother and father died in the line of duty on the job, Swayzak's political career is likely over, and the arsons are stopped. But there are many other arsonists out there.
  • Break Them by Talking: Donald Sutherland's movie-stealing scene.
  • Consulting a Convicted Killer: Brian approaches an imprisoned serial arsonist, Ronald Bartel, when in need of assistance in finding the missing links between a string of recent fires that seem to be connected.
  • Cutting Corners: Swayzak's plan to get more money for him and his businessmen allies (who are also helping him with his election) involves getting rid of firehouses that, according (falsely) to him, are superfluous for what a city like Chicago needs and would be more useful as community services. The fact that he's gambling with people's lives (and fellow firemen's lives in specific) because of the severe cut-down on response capabilities that this creates is the main reason why "Ax" Adcox goes into his Kill It with Fire Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
    • The consequences are shown in a deleted scene in which Engine 17 visits the widow and children of a firefighter who died in the line of duty.
  • Dead Hat Shot: Stephen and Brian's father's helmet is blown clear of the explosion that kills him; a LIFE magazine photographer gets a picture of Brian holding the helmet, right after his father's death.
  • Emergency Services
  • Energy Beings: Sorta. Both Bartel and Rimgale describe fire as an animal and as a sentient predator as a way to understand how it behaves.
  • Face Your Fears: Having watched his father burn to death as a child, Brian is afraid of fire. He nonetheless attends the academy at one point, before his fears get the better of him and he drops out. The second time around he's determined to follow in his father's (and brother's) footsteps and become a fireman, and he does graduate from the academy, but he is visibly scared of the fire still. It's not until the end, when Stephen is badly hurt and needs help, that he faces his fears and goes up against the fire.
  • Firemen Are Hot
  • Government Conspiracy: A local one; Swayzak made several backdoor deals with local businessmen (included a forged manpower study) to shut down firehouses across the city and convert them into community centers, with lucrative construction contracts awarded to the conspirators.
  • Heroic BSoD: Brian, when Stephen goes into a burning apartment to find the child left behind there. Having watched his father die in a fire, and subsequently developed a fear of fire that he struggles to overcome throughout the movie, his fears get the better of him when he believes his brother has fallen victim to the fire as well. All he can do is sit there and cry until Stephen emerges with the child in his arms.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: Several.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Stephen and Brian's father sacrifices himself throwing Adcox clear of a gas explosion, setting the plot in motion. Bull's death in a chemical plant, confronting Adcox, is ultimately pointless...but rescuing the mortally wounded Bull finally forces his brother to grow the beard and become a full-fledged firefighter.
    • Adcox telling Bull to let him fall in so that Bull might save himself. Bull's answer: "You go, we go!"
  • Hollywood Fire: Played straight and averted to varying degrees through the movie.
  • It Can Think: Bull, Bartel, Shadow and Brian all believe that fire is a living thing and has a mind of its own. Slightly averted in that they also know that a fire needs a variety of elements to be put in place by its initiator if it's to be used as an assassination weapon, so the place doesn't burn to the ground before it kills the target.
  • Knight Templar: Adcox. He specifically goes after Swayzak's cronies in the firehouse closing scheme, and sets the fires up so the victims trigger backdrafts; once they explode, they blow themselves out, minimizing risk to firefighters. Unfortunately, in a high rise fire, there was another set of doors that held his backdraft in, and Bull's probie didn't listen...
  • Major Injury Underreaction: An explosion throws Rimgale backwards into an iron fence. One of the decorative spikes goes into his back and comes out through his shoulder. His reaction is a deadpan:
    "Kid? I think I got a problem."
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The barrage of assassinations via backdraft fires, ironic in context, with a high chance of being fatal, evidence is mostly destroyed and need a good arson investigator for it to be found, and self-contained as long as firefighters arrive in time.
  • Meaningful Echo : 'You go, we go.'
    • "You see that glow flashing in the corner of your eye?"
    • "You're doing it wrong!"
  • Meaningful Funeral: Axe and Bull's funeral at the end.
    • The procession before the actual funeral. Headed by the Chicago Emerald Society Marching Band in full Scottish/Irish regalia playing 'Balmoral' on bagpipes and drums, then two fire trucks converted to hearses carrying the caskets with the crew members of Engine/Ladder Company 17 in dress uniform marching alongsides, then the family members of the fallen firefighters walking after the fire trucks, then the senior commanders of the Chicago Fire Department and hundreds of firefighters in dress uniform marching after that.
  • Mood Whiplash: The opening; Brian as a child goes along to one of his father's responses, an apartment fire that seems mostly smouldering (all smoke). Everything is all upbeat and routine, until his father realizes there's a leaking gas line, and Adcox just accidentally exposed it to the fire. He throws Adcox out of the room just before the explosion consumes him, with Brian watching it all. The photo of him holding his father's burned helmet, looking up at the inferno, follows him right through adulthood (see Old Shame below).
  • Naïve Newcomer: Both Brian and the second probie.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Part of the firefighters' code. "You go, we go."
  • Old Shame: In-universe example - the picture of Brian at his father's death continues to follow him years later.
  • Parking Payback: A car is parked in front of a fire hydrant. The firefighters take a certain glee in smashing the car's windows so they can thread the hose through to the hydrant, as is their legal right.
  • Pyro Maniac: Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland)
  • Redemption Equals Death: Firefighter John "Axe" Adcox.
  • Revealing Injury: Brian ends up confronting the masked arsonist as he's attempting to flee the scene of a fire that he's set, and in the scuffle, the arsonist suffers a burn from an electrical socket. Later on, Brian is able to identify the unmasked arsonist through the distinctive burn mark it left.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Stephen is an excellent firefighter, but he has a rather reckless and lax attitude to procedure and the rules, never wearing his mask, never waiting for his hose teams, always going head-on into even the worst blazes, etc.
    • His reckless attitude rubs off on one of his probationary firefighters with disastrous consequences; the probie is horrifically injured by a backdraft after not checking a door properly, and Adcox and Brian (not unfairly) blame Stephen. Although in light of Adcox being the one who actually set the fire, his condemnation is more than a little hypocritical.
  • Sleazy Politician: Alderman Swayzak, following a great Chicago tradition; he's preparing to run for mayor, and using firefighters as a political hobbyhorse to ride into higher office.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Adcox murdered Swayzak's cronies out of anger that the alderman was gambling with firefighter's lives for monetary and political gain, and to try and save firefighter lives by stopping further closings.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Brian, finally driven from Engine 17 into a desk job, rejoins it as a full fledged firefighter after Stephen is killed.
  • Treachery Cover Up: Adcox.
  • Training from Hell: Stephen singles Brian out through putting him through one of these, and it's implied that he's trying to force Brian to quit. He succeeds at first, as Brian moves to Shadow's investigative office and a desk job. Ultimately, though, Brian grows the beard and rejoins Engine 17 after his brother's death.
  • Truth in Television: The funeral at the end of the movie. Nearly all of the hundreds of extras in dress uniforms in the procession and at the interment were real firefighters from Chicago and the surrounding area who turned out for the event as they would for a real funeral. The bagpipers in the lead were the actual Pipe & Drum Corps of the Chicago FD Emerald Society. Firefighters generally agree that the funeral was the only part of the movie that was 100% realistic.

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