Fireproof is a film about differences. Its plot concerns the process of becoming a different person but, more specifically, the film is concerned with being as different as possible from mainstream cinema, a fact immediately evident from the unaccredited and specious quote on the DVD cover: “The #1 inspirational movie in America!” Inspirational is a highly subjective term and one that any number of films could rightfully apply to themselves should they so desire.
The truth of the matter is that the makers of Fireproof mean something else when they say “inspirational movie” – Christian movie. More to the point, Protestant Christian movie based on their values and beliefs; views they feel are absent from mainstream cinema.
Fireproof is the story of firefighter Caleb Holt and his troubled marriage with his wife Catherine. The beginning of the film finds them both at a breaking point, having lost the ability to even be civil to one another. Already feeling the pressure from her career and from caring for her ailing parents, Catherine shocks Caleb by asking for a divorce. The request stirs him from his indifference towards his wife, causing him to realize that he still loves her and doesn’t want their relationship to end.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t know anything he can do to stop it. Help comes in the form of his father, who – after entreating him to become born again – promises to mail him a book that will help him save his marriage in 40 days.
The handwritten book Caleb receives is called “The Love Dare” and it contains a day-by-day guide to winning your spouse back Biblically. Non-religious Caleb is still opposed to joining his father in his faith but honors the promise he made and begins using the techniques in the book. Ranging from small gestures to more overt attempts at wooing, the techniques in “The Love Dare” are met with strong resistance from Catherine, who believes the change in Caleb’s behavior is simply a ploy to secure a more favorable outcome for himself in their inevitable divorce.
Caleb decides to give up after his grandest gesture yet is met with Catherine giving him divorce papers. His father once again offers him reassurance and this time Caleb accepts his offer to become born again. After becoming a Christian, Caleb begins to find that his love dares are becoming more successful and that he is less discouraged by the failures. The steps he takes are increasingly more dramatic, causing Catherine to reconsider abandoning their marriage. Catherine can see the change in Caleb but before they can reconcile she is faced with the task of learning to trust him again.
Catherine and Caleb aren’t able to fully restore their marriage until she too becomes born again, illustrating the overt central theme of Fireproof. While the first half of the film is typical dramatic fare, Fireproof’s second half makes no attempt to hide its cinema-as-sermon intentions. The relationship advice is glossed over in favor of reiterating the point that no attempt to save their marriage will be successful until they both become Christians.
This idea is the central motivator for the film and one that is conveyed very effectively. So effective are the sermonizing portions of the film that the narrative feels significantly diminished; almost an afterthought or merely present to facilitate the main message. This is most likely the case but the tale of romantic disillusionment that Catherine and Caleb go through still conveys an obvious – and, at times, troubling – message.
Early in the film a character describes women as roses, blooming or wilting based on the way they are treated by a man. That women are mutable beings defined by the man in their life is a recurring message in Fireproof. All of the responsibility for their marriage is placed on Caleb and Catherine’s behavior, however unacceptable it becomes over the course of the film, is his fault since, as a woman, anything she does is a reaction to him rather than a conscious decision.
Catherine is essentially a non-individual; a being defined not by who she is but by who she is with. This aspect of the film is presaged by the unintentionally disturbing opening sequence where a young girl asks her mother if she can marry her father when she grows up. If one views the girl as being Catherine – the most likely scenario – the troubling aspects of the scene are compounded further by the evidence that Catherine’s father was also a firefighter, putting an odd spin on her marriage to Caleb.
Catherine’s portrayal as a being lacking a free will of her own puts an even greater onus on Caleb; again, something that could have very well been intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Caleb is demonized early on in the film and his negative qualities are reiterated ad nauseam throughout: he is quick to anger, selfish, and addicted to Internet pornography, a quality that the film takes great pains to emphasize as especially heinous. All of these qualities are shown as worse than Catherine’s actions, even after she enters into an emotional relationship with a coworker. Since Catherine’s behavior is simply a reaction to her treatment by Caleb, the film gives him and not her the blame for her extramarital relationship; infidelity by practically anyone’s standards.
Star Kirk Cameron turns in an exceptional performance as Caleb, convincingly breaking with his “nice guy” image for most of the film. Cameron’s decision to leave Hollywood behind for a career in the ministry caused him to drop off the radar so most people will share my surprise at how well his abilities have matured since Growing Pains. The Blu Ray edition of the film was used for the purposes of this review and contains an impressive array of special features. These range from the standard making of featurettes and commentaries to a few humorous segments featuring “Wayne,” Fireproof’s comic relief character. Surprisingly absent are any overtly religious features, leading me to believe that this release was aimed to bridge the gap between the film’s core audience and secular viewers.
Fireproof’s climax undercuts a good portion of its message, if not making its very existence irrelevant, as well. Catherine eventually comes to the decision to follow Caleb in his newfound faith based on the strength of his actions alone, not through his prosthelytizing about it. In fact, the film never depicts Caleb sharing his beliefs with Catherine at all and shows instead his kindness and understanding towards her. When he learns of her relationship with the coworker, Caleb doesn’t condemn or confront her but redoubles his efforts to show her love and affection.
For a film dedicated to enumerating the benefits of its belief system and one that is so quick to condemn those who do not share it, it is ironic that the narrative inadvertently proves the effectiveness of the opposite approach.