Fireproof (2008): Looking Closer’s Film Forum

What is Film Forum? Well, with so many film reviews published, and so little time to read them all, I make a note of any review that I find particularly thoughtful, interesting, or persuasive.

Be sure to check back, as I’ve only just begun to read reviews of these films, and I’ll add more interesting excerpts as I come across them. Feel free to submit more reviews, or even your own, in the comments below.

Chris Willman – Entertainment Weekly:

Some of the tenser domestic moments will hit home with battle-scarred marrieds of any religious stripe, and the couple’s problems are candid by evangelical feature standards, although they hardly rate high on the secular dramaturgy scale: He’s got an Internet porn habit, and she’s enjoying an unconsummated flirtation with a doctor at work.

These are temptations faced by Christian and non-Christian couples alike, but the filmmakers hedge their bets by making the young marrieds agnostic at the start of the movie, in order to turn Fireproof into a manual for eternal as well as marital salvation. (”I’m in!” Cameron announces to a spiritually mentoring firefighter pal.) You probably can’t blame pastors moonlighting as moviemakers for wanting to pack their film with multiple messages, but the conversion subplot feels shoehorned into the more crucial marital doings, as if coming to Jesus might be just one of a long checklist of steps to restore sizzle to your marriage, right between buying roses and preparing a candlelit dinner.

Peter Chattaway – Christianity Today Movies

Like most Christian films, Fireproof includes a scene in which the protagonist makes a decision for Christ, but one of the things I like about the Kendricks’ films—including not only Fireproof and Facing the Giants but also their first film, Flywheel—is that this moment usually comes about halfway through the story, instead of at the end, which is where it normally happens in Billy Graham and Left Behind movies. Where those other films treat first-time commitments and rededications to Christ as the climax to the story, like the wedding at the end of a fairy tale, the Kendricks show these moments of decision to be true turning points; the person who lived one way at the beginning of the film learns how to live another way by the end.

However, in Fireproof, it is not quite clear how essential Caleb’s conversion is to his efforts to save his marriage. Flywheel and Facing the Giants concerned men who already had some sort of connection to a church community, but Caleb only has his parents and a friend or two for spiritual support. The Kendricks have said that Caleb needs to know Christ if he is to love his wife as Christ loved the church—but by that same token, shouldn’t he also be involved in an actual church? What if someone were to follow the steps outlined in The Love Dare without being a Christian? While the film works well enough as an extension of Sherwood Baptist’s marriage ministry, it is hard to escape the feeling that the evangelistic element has been tacked on.

But let’s not quibble too much. They say an audience will forgive a movie’s flaws if it gives them a solid ending, and Fireproof definitely has that.

Neil Genzlinger -The New York Times

“Fireproof” may not be the most profound movie ever made, but it does have its commendable elements, including that rarest of creatures on the big (or small) screen: characters with a strong, conservative Christian faith who don’t sound crazy.

. . . The screenwriters, the brothers Alex Kendrick (who also directed) and Stephen Kendrick, give the story some pull by not making Catherine into the usual neglected wallflower of a wife. Instead she’s a publicist at a hospital who spends most of the film contemplating whether to hop into bed with one of the doctors.

For two-thirds of the movie, the filmmakers show a restraint rare in the movie-with-a-Message genre, so much so that the two most appealing characters are those nudging Caleb toward Christianity (Mr. Malcom and Ken Bevel as a fellow firefighter).

. . . But the cast of mostly amateurs (Mr. Cameron of “Growing Pains” being the exception) is surprisingly good. And the moments of comic relief are mildly amusing.

Only at the end do the filmmakers get heavy-handed, and they seem not to know when to wrap up, letting the movie run on for several smarmy scenes beyond its natural endpoint. Until then, though, this is a decent attempt to combine faith and storytelling that will certainly register with its target audience.

And maybe with other folks as well: among those caring-for-marriage tips are some that anyone could use to improve any type of relationship, with or without the God part.

Richard Corliss – TIME:

Fireproof is a Christian parable, a sermon ornamented with a story, about a firefighter named Caleb (Kirk Cameron) whose marriage with Catherine (Erin Bethea) is falling apart. This theological imperative makes the film an anomaly among current releases. But almost as daring is its tackling of that taboo movie subject, an ordinary marriage. This isn’t a weepie, where the beautiful wife is dying, or a thriller, with one spouse trying to kill the other—just two people facing the burdens of living together after the first passion has ebbed, when the idle words and gestures of the person you used to love threaten to ascend to the level of war crimes.

…In theory, Fireproof is as alien to me as Religulous is familiar. At more than two hours, the film will make those viewers restless who aren’t utterly resistant. But there’s something affecting about its artless earnestness, its aim to dramatize large portions of ordinary lives that most movies ignore. I wasn’t converted, but I was charmed.

More here.

UPDATE: 1/27/09

Michael Leary of film-think posted a comment at artsandfaith.com:

I finally got around to watching Fireproof, and I liked it. I liked it in the way that in the same way that I “like” sermons that call to mind something important even if I don’t like the way they are presented. There are so many parts in which Fireproof is awful, clumsy, and unprofessional in all the ways we would expect it to be. But I can completely imagine people walking away from it with better ideas about marriage and relationships. I keep waiting to feel some intense reaction to it as a flawed work of Christian art and thought. I guess it isn’t coming. Part of this is may be because I don’t think of it as a “film” as much as a class project put on by some well meaning person at the Bob Jones film school.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • mleary

    “I really don‚Äôt know what to do with that Anton Ego quote. I mean, he‚Äôs a food critic. In what sense is food ‚Äúmeaningful‚Äù? So-called junk food can save a person from hunger in a way that no bit of food criticism can, sure.”

    Yeah, I have a tough time with the Anton Ego quote as well. I think the problem is that the quotation seperates the “average piece of junk” from the “criticism designating it so.” In fact, the work and its criticism can’t ever be so neatly distinguished, as good reviews are an extension of a film into life and public discourse. They are the end of a process a film begins. On account of this, good criticism really can make average films a “nourishing” experience or process because they train us to see things properly – they help us form the right expectations and interests.

    “Film critics and the people who vote on the awards are, to me, very out of touch with Joe American. It‚Äôs fine if they see certain movies as great artistic triumphs, but in 10 years, 9 out of 10 of those movies aren‚Äôt going to be remembered much.”

    So… what about Joe Iranian, Joe Korean, Joe Brazilian, or Joe Israeli? Some “forgettable” films mean a great deal to the cultures that produced them.

  • http://www.besidethequeue.wordpress.com besidethequeue

    “…BUT, if I took a poll of my average movie-watching friends, I‚Äôd be willing to bet they‚Äôre still raving about Big Daddy (and it‚Äôs probably on their shelf of DVD‚Äôs‚Ķbought from the $5 cart at Wal-Mart), but they still have never heard of or seen Magnolia.”

    Well, doesn’t this just prove why good critics are so valuable. There is really very little discussion when it comes down to it about whether Big Daddy is a better film than Magnolia. It’s not. That people prefer Big Daddy is proof that the critic’s work is not done.

    I would argue that when the critics is in-line with the majority of entertainment consuming Joes then he isn’t doing his job, nor is he a good critics. Part of a critic’s job, I would think, is to lead readers and movie-goers towards those artistic achievements that are True, Good, and Beautiful but that are not easily discovered. The critics has the “in” – Joe does not. Therefore, the critic ought to use their “in” to help Joe experience said Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

  • nathanshorb

    “As for the question of which movies are ‚Äúremembered‚Äù in nine or ten years‚Ķ Big Daddy was one of the Top 10 films of 1999. Magnolia wasn‚Äôt even in the Top 75. Which of these films does anybody ‚Äúremember‚Äù today?”

    “Exactly.”

    Wait a second guys…I promise I’m on your side here…I haven’t watched Big Daddy since the year it came out, but I’ve watched Magnolia several times since then.

    BUT, if I took a poll of my average movie-watching friends, I’d be willing to bet they’re still raving about Big Daddy (and it’s probably on their shelf of DVD’s…bought from the $5 cart at Wal-Mart), but they still have never heard of or seen Magnolia.

    Sad, but true.

    Personally, I think your point only further illustrates the wide gap between Critic and Joe.

  • http://wkshank.wordpress.com wkshank

    To change the subject entirely (maybe it’s time?) — is anyone else bothered by the glut of “must go” ratings for this movie on the Fandango website? I saw Fireproof’s pre-release, and helped organize a church outing to see it opening night, which sold out. So, I believe in the movie’s message, and I’ve seen it twice — mostly for ministry reasons. But a “must go” as a film? No. Worth watching for its message, yes, and refreshingly free of trash, but obviously the film has more than a few artistic flaws. Admittedly, Fandango isn’t a great place to get informed impressions from discerning filmgoers, but the way people are stacking the ratings (and “booing” bad ratings by others) on that website doesn’t say anything great about Christians’ ability to talk intelligently about art!

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    As for the question of which movies are “remembered” in nine or ten years… Big Daddy was one of the Top 10 films of 1999. Magnolia wasn’t even in the Top 75. Which of these films does anybody “remember” today?

    Exactly.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Very well said, Nate.

    And I agree. (I made a similar call for critics to avoid contempt and snobbery in Through a Screen Darkly, and a call for “Joe Moviegoers” to understand that little-known movies, and movies that require some work on the viewer’s part, are often more rewarding than the easy-to-swallow, formulaic shows at the mutliplex.)

    You’ll notice I haven’t made any critical observations about Fireproof. I haven’t seen it. I’m in no position to make a judgment until I’ve seen it. But from experience I’ve learned to value thoughtful reviews, so that’s what I set out to do here… share thoughtful perspectives.

    It may be that I would be haunted by Fireproof after I left the theater. I might find it nourishing. Or I might find it moralistic and heavy-handed. Whatever the case, I don’t believe anybody should judge anybody else based on their reaction to a work of art. But jinxmchue seemed to be judging people from the start. His first comments draws a line between “people who are paid to review films” and “ordinary people.” And he described those who give awards to movies as being guilty of “elitist thinking.” Then he declared that Fireproof is the kind of film that everybody should see, that is it an example of the most nourishing kind of filmmaking.

    It’s interesting… because he writes reviewers off as “elitists,” but then goes on to do what most reviewers do: construct an argument about the value of a particular film, and criticize another film by comparison. Is that elitist thinking? I don’t think so. I’m not one to judge film enthusiasts for writing about, thinking through, and forming their own opinion of a film’s significance. I enjoy the conversation among filmgoers with different perspectives, so long as they don’t start slapping labels on each other and treating each other with contempt.

    I don’t see anything “elitist” about those review I posted in the “forum” above. They seem like thoughtful, personal interpretations and responses to me.

  • petertchattaway

    I really don’t know what to do with that Anton Ego quote. I mean, he’s a food critic. In what sense is food “meaningful”? So-called junk food can save a person from hunger in a way that no bit of food criticism can, sure. But is it not more “meaningful” to have a sense of what food is, and should be? And can’t food critics help people to figure out what that might be? (Well, maybe not. As noted earlier in this thread, there is a difference between nutritionists and food critics. Nutritionists can tell us what is good for us. Food critics serve a somewhat different function.)

    As for the question of which movies are “remembered” in nine or ten years… Big Daddy was one of the Top 10 films of 1999. Magnolia wasn’t even in the Top 75. Which of these films does anybody “remember” today?

    I like Fireproof, so I don’t want to come off sounding too harsh about it or anything like that, but if we’re going to keep pursuing these food analogies, then I would say that this film is neither fine cuisine nor junk food, but rather, it is kind of like the medicine that comes with the proverbial spoonful of sugar. If all we eat is the sugar, then we’re in trouble. But if the sugar helps the medicine go down, then there’s nothing wrong with it. Let’s just not kid ourselves that this film is a banquet, a feast fit for kings, because it isn’t. But it’s not pretending to be, so that’s fine by me.

    Maybe medicine is the wrong word. Maybe it’s more like a vegetable dipped in ketchup. We need our veggies, but some of us need to cover the veggies in other stuff in order to make the veggies go down more easily. Something like that.

  • http://www.conversantlife.com/blogs/natebell natebell

    Good discussion!

    I think there’s a tendency for professional film critics to become insular and snobby, and that could be a problem. However, I don’t believe it’s a critic’s job to be “with it” or “in touch” with the common viewer, either. If it were, why would we even need critics at all? I think critics should do their best to maintain high (personal) standards regardless of what’s popular.

    It’s my belief that a lot of “average moviegoers” (now there’s a vague term for you) would like to see a variety of films, but are unable to because poor distribution or poor advertising makes that impossible. They go see Eagle Eye or Nights in Rodanthe (two movies that opened with Fireproof) because those are the only options available to them. So you can’t really trust box office numbers as a truthful barometer of American taste.

    I suspect many people showed up for Fireproof because it looked refreshing to them. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that most of those people were Christians. Like Jinx said, it’s noticeably lacking in unsavory “content.” But that has nothing to do with whether the film is actually any good or not, so I don’t see why it’s necessary to disrespect film critics for calling it like they see it.

    My advice to both parties (since I have a dual membership—I see movies for fun and sometimes for money) would probably go something like this:

    Mr. Movie Critic: Don’t be so quick to write off a film that’s making an impression on the public. If the box office results are unusually high, there may be a good reason for it. And try not to become so insulated. You started out as an “average” moviegoer, too!

    Joe Moviegoer: Don’t be offended when critics tear down a film you happened to like. It’s their job to be critical. Most of what we enjoy isn’t high art anyway. Try to listen to what good film critics are saying—they may turn out to be insightful!

  • http://shockandblog.blogspot.com/ jinxmchue

    Film critics and the people who vote on the awards are, to me, very out of touch with Joe American. It’s fine if they see certain movies as great artistic triumphs, but in 10 years, 9 out of 10 of those movies aren’t going to be remembered much. The value of a movie isn’t determined by how many glowing reviews or how many little gold statues it receives from a small group of elitists. You could make the most artistically perfect movie, but if hardly anyone goes to it, where is its value? That’s not to say that artistry is meaningless, but it’s not the end all and be all of a movie’s worth.

    That being said, “Fireproof” may not be a critic’s dream film (judging from the undeserved vicious attacks on it by many critics, quite the opposite), but the film has resonated with the average Americans who’ve watched it. The vast majority of Americans do not share the views and attitudes of most film critics, but is it right or fair to compare an obvious love for “Fireproof” with eating greasy, junky fast food? “Fireproof” is not anything like the trash Hollywood has been putting out these last few years where either gore or sexual perversity is pushed to the extreme. Those movies truly are junk food in your analogy. So are the movies with mindless action, action, action. It’s nice, for once, to have a movie where the characters deal with real life issues and decisions and where the humor isn’t based upon human or animal bodily fluids.

  • glennmccarty

    Wow – what a topic! As a critic myself (music more than movies), I’ve had to roll over these very issues myself. I think the main problem many people have with many critics is that a lot of critics see themselves as standard-bearers for “good taste,” whatever that is, and thus elevate themselves to a higher standard than what we deserve.

    Jeff, I’m curious what you make of Brad Bird’s quote (said by Ego) from Ratatouille:
    “…the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so…”

    Seems to me that critics walk a fine line between upholding standards of quality (so movies like Eagle Eye – which seems to be in vogue in this thread – are separated from Cool Hand Luke, say) and losing sight of the myriad reasons why movies exist, and thus, the fact that ultimately critics must serve their audience first and the form of the media they review, second. No critic that I’m aware of ever wrote a review that no one read. I think this is why Ebert is “America’s critic” – because he always writes with a rock-solid grasp of audience.

    Ah – the tenuous dialectic of critical and commercial success…

  • flatlandsfriar

    “Krzysztof Kieslowski. (Ooops. Am I acting like an elitist if I spell out the name of a filmmaker from Poland?)”

    Elitism would be showing off that you could pronounce it.

    And I’m sure that Mr. Kieslowski is a fine filmmaker, but I doubt “Saw” franchise could compare favorably with the films of Alan Smithee ;-)

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    I think I get what you’re saying but I don’t buy the analogy. Nutritional value is a concrete science. Certain things in certain foods lead to increased risks of health problems. Other things in other foods reduce risks of health problems. We must be able to obtain some things from our foods, like vitamins, or we will suffer consequences, like scurvy.

    Well, I encounter a lot of debate amongst nutritionist, so I’m not sure how *exact* a science it is.

    But you’re right, Brett, I could have found a better analogy. Food critics aren’t focused on mere nutrition. They’re focused on the art of cooking.

    Note that Anton Ego, in Ratatouille, was not really a villain because he was a critic. He was a villain because he had an attitude problem. He was redeemed in the end by becoming a better critic. And in his triumphant monologue at the end, he declared that critics should not be out there complaining and expressing contempt, but rather… going out and celebrating what is new and beautiful.

    The best film critics do that. They also acknowledge what is good and bad about mainstream, popular cinema.

    But I do think you’ll agree with me that if a person says we should avoid fancy restaurants or foreign cuisine because “the success and value of a meal is determined by what most people choose to eat,” that something’s gone very wrong.

    A critic can judge certain concrete technical aspects of food, film or any other human endeavor. A poorly-lit or poorly-recorded film is a poorly-lit or poorly recorded film. An undercooked dish is an undercooked dish. But beyond that, most of what critics judge or offer their opinions about are subjective matters. The music score that distracts one viewer may enchant another.

    Ah, but the music that enchants that “another” may be derivative, or even stolen. It may be the kind of thing someone without any talent or learning plunked out on a keyboard. Surely there is something to be said for the value of education and talent. When people *study* filmmaking, they usually end up studying the works of masters who were not box office champions.

    Once the critic moves beyond the concrete into the subjective, he or she has an opinion. That opinion may have come from years of experience watching movies (or tasting food, or whatever), but it remains an opinion, and has no power to sway those who choose to ignore it.

    I agree. But I would tend to give more credit to the choices of moviegoers who listen to those who have more expeirence than them, not those who ignore critics and point to the box office Top Ten as a measure of artistic excellence.

    I’d hate to have to conclude that the Saw franchise represents a higher artistic achievement than the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. (Ooops. Am I acting like an elitist if I spell out the name of a filmmaker from Poland?)

  • flatlandsfriar

    “By the same token then, nutritionists and food critics don‚Äôt really have much worthwhile to say about the worth of a particular meal‚Ķ but ordinary people will be the best judges of whether a meal is worth eating.”

    I think I get what you’re saying but I don’t buy the analogy. Nutritional value is a concrete science. Certain things in certain foods lead to increased risks of health problems. Other things in other foods reduce risks of health problems. We must be able to obtain some things from our foods, like vitamins, or we will suffer consequences, like scurvy.

    A critic can judge certain concrete technical aspects of food, film or any other human endeavor. A poorly-lit or poorly-recorded film is a poorly-lit or poorly recorded film. An undercooked dish is an undercooked dish. But beyond that, most of what critics judge or offer their opinions about are subjective matters. The music score that distracts one viewer may enchant another. A storyline that makes this viewer cringe makes that viewer applaud. A performance (Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”) some viewers (most of the country) find fascinatingly enigmatic looks wooden and lifeless to the person at the other end of the row (me).

    Once the critic moves beyond the concrete into the subjective, he or she has an opinion. That opinion may have come from years of experience watching movies (or tasting food, or whatever), but it remains an opinion, and has no power to sway those who choose to ignore it. The opinion, probably held by many people, that “Fireproof” is a good movie because of its message is unlikely to sway those who find it is not all that well-written, directed or acted when compared with other films. And vice-versa, the opinion of those people is unlikely to sway those who appreciate its message enough to overlook what are said to be flaws.

  • Brett

    Amen!!

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    The issue of nutrition isn’t subject to elitist thinking like Hollywood movies are. (That much can be judged simply by looking at what movies win awards. It’s usually the ones that hardly anyone has seen.)

    So… bestselling books represent the peak of literary craft?

    At the end of the year, most critics’ top ten lists do include films that were not widely seen.

    That is, in part, because most critics see several hundred films a year, whereas most moviegoers only see a handful per month.

    Further, the films most people see are features that have been supported and promoted by corporations and shoved into multiplexes. Those films have usually been carefully calculated and promoted to appeal to what people *want* to see, not necessarily what they *need* to see.

    As a result film festivals are full of independent and foreign films that have been made out of passion, with the artists often giving up their own resources to make the film available to a very small audience. But their films are often far more original, artistic, and personal than the commercialized product that ends up in the box office Top Ten.

    Film critics become film critics, most of the time, because they love movies so much that they can’t stop seeing, writing, and talking about them. When it comes to the best movies of the year, I’d rather have the opinion of a critic who loves movies, who can speak with eloquence and education, and who has seen 400 movies in a year (thus having much more experience and more basis for comparison), than the opinion of someone who has only seen what the corporations provided to the local mall.

    The more I explore the movies being made around the world ever year, the more I love movies, and the more I’m saddened by the slim pickings to be found in most American neighborhoods on the typical Friday night.

  • http://shockandblog.blogspot.com/ jinxmchue

    The issue of nutrition isn’t subject to elitist thinking like Hollywood movies are. (That much can be judged simply by looking at what movies win awards. It’s usually the ones that hardly anyone has seen.) In any case, it’s widely recognized even by people who eat it that fast food isn’t as healthy as fruits and vegetables.

    But you unwittingly bring up an interesting point. If the analogy were to be accurate, “Fireproof” would be the fruits and vegetables that people should, but don’t always, eat and the usual Hollywood shlock is the mass-produced, unhealthy but sense-pleasing fast food made for mass consumption. “Eagle Eye” may be popular, but it’s not going to stay with people long after they leave the theater like “Fireproof” is.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    So… if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that “ordinary people” are really the experts on the value of a work of art, not people who are educated in that particular artistic discipline and have a passion for it?

    By the same token then, nutritionists and food critics don’t really have much worthwhile to say about the worth of a particular meal… but ordinary people will be the best judges of whether a meal is worth eating.

    So McDonald’s really *is* the best place to have dinner? If I’m going by the choices of “ordinary people”, then I must determine that fast food is more valuable than fine cuisine, because it’s more successful, and more people will eat what they like than will eat what they really need.

    It’s true that critics don’t have much effect on the box office success of a movie. But shall we assume that the box office accurately reflects the *value* of a movie?

    In that case, let’s hear it for Eagle Eye, a contemporary classic, and a more meaningful movie than Fireproof!

    Perhaps I shouldn’t go to the doctor next time I’m feeling very sick. Perhaps I should just take a poll of “ordinary people” about what I should do.

    Okay, clearly I’m being sarcastic. But I get very worried whenever I hear that the “value of a movie” has anything to do with the “success of a movie.” And when I read the thoughts of “ordinary people” on movies, I often come away deeply discouraged by the lack of critical thinking involved. Sure, critics can become self-absorbed, but for the most part, I think the world needs film critics precisely because “ordinary people” are easily impressed by glamour, mediocrity, and agendas that they applaud, rather than by the revelatory power of artistic excellence.

  • http://shockandblog.blogspot.com/ jinxmchue

    Ultimately, it is the people who aren’t paid to review films who will determine the success and value of the movie. Judging from the ratings and reviews of it online by ordinary people, “Fireproof” is a clear winner.

    http://www.fandango.com/fireproof_117527/readuserreviews

    http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=fireproof.htm


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