The Artistic Merits of FIREPROOF

The Artistic Merits of FIREPROOF

By Douglas Lloyd McIntosh 

Years before anybody ever heard of Yogi Berra, the great producer and Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn became famous for a series of verbally maladroit pearls of dubious wisdom collectively known as Goldwynisms. Every connoisseur has his personal favorites: “Include me out,” “Flashbacks are a thing of the past,” or “Don’t worry about the war, it’s all over but the shooting.” One of the greatest is, “I don’t want to be surrounded by Yes Men, I want people who’ll disagree with me even if it costs them their jobs!” My own personal fave driven home by long years in the Hollywood trenches is this one, “A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Probably the most oft-quoted Goldwynism, however, is his celebrated preachment against so-called Message Pictures:  “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

What an irony then that the recent Christian marital drama FIREPROOF, as quintessential a message picture as ever flickered on a screen, has been successfully released by none other than Samuel Goldwyn Films. Surely this amounts to credible evidence, as if any were needed, that God has a sense of humor.

Goldwyn’s primary meaning of course was that a film’s foremost obligation is to entertain the audience, a duty easily forgotten when filmmakers let themselves get carried away on a flood of didacticism. This was most recently demonstrated by the tide of box office catastrophes produced by the knee-jerk left to protest “Bush’s War” on international Islamic terrorism.

Even though every film communicates on some level the underlying worldview of those who made it, there are those who have bought Goldwyn’s no-message concept to the point of condemning any self-conscious message at all as “preachy” and therefore wrong.

I have sat across the luncheon table from one of the most successful Christian screenwriters in Hollywood as he told me in no uncertain terms that a motion picture cannot be used for purposes of evangelism. “A film can only be used for pre-evangelism,” he said, referring to preparing the non-Christian’s heart for subsequent illumination later from some other source. However this fastidious aesthetic argument may ultimately fare at the Bema Seat, it’s a good thing nobody told the makers of FIREPROOF, last year’s most profitable film in terms of ratio between production budget ($500,000) and box office receipts ($33,456,317), that they were doing anything wrong. Or if told, they wisely ignored the advice.

For myself I have always subscribed to the outlook of Cecil B. DeMille, “As long as I keep the audience sufficiently entertained, I can tell them anything I want.” Even in his non-Biblical epics DeMille always communicated the two underlying messages that were closest to his heart:  American exceptionalism and the truth of our Judeo-Christian heritage, especially the reality of the age old warfare between good and evil. He did this quite consciously as a patriot and a Christian, and for his trouble he was vilified by the liberal elites and cultural arbiters of his day. Fortunately, his unprecedented box office success kept him laughing all the way to the bank.

A similar situation prevails with FIREPROOF, and even those who like the film have not for the most part done full justice to its many genuine artistic merits. If Hollywood were not too blind to see, this picture is a virtual textbook on how to make an indie film that clicks with audiences. For conservatives, it’s a case study in how to sugarcoat a blatant and unapologetic conservative message in a bright package of satisfying entertainment.

Since I’m a screenwriter, let’s start with the writing, for to quote another oft-ignored DeMille epigram, “If you don’t have a good picture on paper, you’ll never get one on the screen.” 

The FIREPROOF screenplay by director Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen Kendrick is intelligently written, clever, funny, touching, and very well-structured. The true glory of the script is that it’s so relentlessly old-fashioned. And as Dom Irrera would say, I don’t mean that in a bad way! Ours is a day when the elitist know-it-alls in our industry want nothing more than to make the viewer “work” trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Man, I wish I had a thousand bucks for every time I’ve heard a producer, executive, or director say in a development meeting, “Let’s make the audience work,” or “Let’s not make it too easy for the audience.” Yet these crazy Kendrick guys believe in clarity, exposition, character-development, and most astonishingly of all, a solid plotline. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to “work” when I watch a movie, I want to sit back and enjoy the show.

With FIREPROOF it’s like you’re watching something out of Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s. The story opens with a series of brief, interesting scenes that set up the two likable main characters, their deteriorating marriage, their world, and a number of minor characters who will recur throughout. When we first see Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron), the captain of an Albany, Georgia, fire station, he’s bawling out one of his men for separating from his partner in a dangerous firefighting situation. “You never leave your partner,” Caleb says, “especially in a fire!” This is a blatant but delicious irony of course because the central drama of the picture is whether Caleb and his wife Catherine (Erin Bethea) are going to lose their life’s partnership in the fires of conflict, selfishness, and misunderstanding.

Early in the first act we follow husband and wife through their workday. Both are compassionate, dedicated public servants with a commitment to helping others, and we quickly come to like and admire each of them tremendously. But as soon as they arrive home within a few minutes of one another they’re fighting, accusing and yelling at each other. The argument isn’t one of those phony sitcom quarrels where they spit out one-liners and devastatingly witty putdowns. This is the kind of argument couples have in real life about matters that seem thoroughly mundane, uninteresting, and downright stupid to outsiders but often lead straight to divorce court. Most fascinating of all, the audience quickly sees that each spouse has a certain amount of truth on his or her side, but each is too bitter and hurt at this juncture to appreciate or even comprehend the other person’s point of view.

In real life, what often happens is that by the time a man realizes he has a problem in his marriage, the wife is so wounded and alienated that it’s too late to do anything about the situation. Also typical is the fact that Catherine is already being targeted by a charming womanizer, in this case a physician who works at the same hospital where she handles public relations. When someone feels under-appreciated at home, he or she is that much more vulnerable to a seductive predator who appears to offer the needed emotional support, however deceptive. (Perry Revell gives an interesting performance as the doctor, whom he plays as a superficially nice guy who may actually feel at least partially regretful about his lustful compulsions – though not enough to quit.)

Into the downward spiral of Caleb’s process of marital dissolution steps a rescuer in the person of his dad John Holt (Harris Malcom), who points out that if this marriage is going to be saved somebody needs to start giving instead of taking, and in this instance it has to be Caleb. He hands his son the handwritten book that saved his own marriage and challenges Caleb to follow its suggestions for pleasing his wife over the next forty days. This effort provides the spine of the story, which is worked out with remarkable humor, considerable drama, several delightful plot twists, and touching moments powerful enough to move anyone to tears except the terminally cynical.

FIREPROOF, like its predecessor FACING THE GIANTS (2006), was produced as a church project by the Sherwood Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia, and most of the actors are apparently amateurs donating their time and talent to the cause in the same way churchgoers everywhere donate their services to a local Christmas or Easter pageant. Okay, few of the performances manifest the complete polish one would expect from professional actors, but overall I find everybody generally convincing. None of the acting is sufficiently jarring to knock the viewer out of the story. Director Alex Kendrick, one of the pastors at Sherwood Baptist, is clearly a man of taste and sensitivity, and he demonstrates an extraordinary gift for putting his performers at ease in front of the camera.

Ultimately, though, FIREPROOF is carried by the powerful performance of its star, Kirk Cameron, a Christian believer who called Kendrick up after seeing FACING THE GIANTS and offered to be involved in the church’s next production. His acting is evocative, realistic, moving work that touches on a wide range of the many pressures men face these days. It’s a juicy role of the kind any talented young actor should latch onto, and he gives it his all. His character’s arc is completely convincing as he starts trying to achieve a righteous end through human willpower by following a set of rules, only to come to the end of himself and discover that he and his marriage can only be saved by reaching out for Divine intervention.

Getting back to the non-professional actors, I can’t recall amateur performances that worked this well since the early talkies of Jean Renoir in the 1930s, which exercised a profound influence on the Italian neo-realist movement after World War Two. In fact the Mise-en-scène throughout FIREPROOF reminds me of nothing so much as Renoir. Now I can just hear people scoffing, “Oh sure, like some Southern Baptist preacher turned film director is going to be a fan of Jean Renoir!” Well, Alex Kendrick attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in one of the most French-influenced areas of the United States, so who knows?

At any rate, the filmmaking in FIREPROOF is remarkably sophisticated, enormously abetted by Bob Scott’s elegant and beautiful camerawork. There are tracking shots that are just stunning, not only those long conversations in the woods that are pure Renoir but others, especially in the firehouse, that are worthy of the great Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer. (Incidentally, I consider Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC [1928] and ORDET [THE WORD, 1955] as two of the greatest Christian films ever made, though the latter especially is very slow for a modern audience. What a pity Dreyer never got the financing for his life of Christ!)

Whatever the actual influences, Kendrick’s direction reflects some degree of what has to be conscious appreciation for – and the humility to learn from – the great cinematic achievements of the past. The camera setups, movement and staging are beautiful, effective and emotionally evocative, but invisible in the sense of not calling attention to themselves. As Alfred Hitchcock of all people used to say, if the audience is sitting there thinking “what a great shot,” the director has failed. Overbearing technique has pulled viewers away from emotional involvement in the story.

The best directorial approach is often simple and unpretentious, the mastery of craft only revealing itself in subsequent reflection. I can remember being almost knocked out of my chair by a single moment the first time I saw Jean Renoir’s A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1936), the moment when a man realizes a woman he casually slept with should have been the love of his life, but now he has lost her forever. Later I realized it’s all accomplished in a single utterly simple shot, and if you’ve seen the film you probably know the one I mean. It’s a close shot of a guy lighting a cigarette. The despair and resignation captured in that gesture – the turning away into profile, the flaring match, the bended head – are very nearly unbearable. It’s not even a particularly well-framed shot, but it absolutely cuts you to the heart, an almost cosmic demonstration of the power of straightforward cinema free of modern day directorial ego and ostentation.

FIREPROOF may not contain a single moment on that level of genius, but it is definitely the work of a director both humble and self-confident enough to lock the camera down occasionally and let the actors do their thing. The single greatest reveal in the picture occurs in a simple, unmoving medium shot of that womanizing doctor sitting at his desk. It’s pure pantomime, like something out of silent film, and I doubt there’s a single working director in today’s Hollywood who would stage it so simply and so well.

Kendrick also gives us a couple of good action/suspense sequences where we can actually understand what’s happening. He demonstrates the dangers first responders have to face everyday without resorting to the handheld, shaky camerawork or to the flashy, fast-cutting, incomprehensible editing that have become such a cliché. People, this is impressive work, and it ought to be recognized.

All this brings us back to my initial point. Kendrick and the others have earned the right to proclaim their message by making us care about their characters and most of all by entertaining us. It’s a message from people who care about saving marriages, and of course there’s an even deeper concern about saving souls.

Yes, this is a “preachy” picture by folks who want to proclaim the message of the Christian gospel, a word properly translated from the New Testament Greek as “good news.” What exactly is this good news? You can find as succinct and clear a statement as I’ve ever read on the Sherwood Baptist Church website:  “We believe salvation is a free gift of God’s grace apart from human works, based solely upon Christ’s atoning death, received only through faith in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection from death.” For our non-religious friends, it should probably be explained that “salvation” means deliverance from the guilt of our personal sins and rebellion against the holy, loving, and utterly just Creator Who gave us life and to Whom all human beings are ultimately responsible. The word “grace” means “unmerited favor” or “undeserved mercy.” 

This good news illuminates a whole new level of meaning for the title FIREPROOF.

The people who made this film believe, as I do, that the Truth expressed in the church’s statement, applied through personal faith and childlike trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, fully God and yet fully human, Who died for our sins and then conquered death on our behalf, the just for the unjust, makes us “fireproof” for all eternity.