The church congregation in Georgia that faced down giants has turned its attention away from football and toward firemen in the save-your-marriage-or-die-trying film Fireproof.
Capt. Caleb Holt is a veteran firefighter in the Albany, Ga., fire dept. According to him, everybody thinks he’s a hero except his own wife. “How is it that I get respect everywhere I go except in my own house?” he complains. Catherine Holt will have none of that, though. She’s had it up to here with Caleb’s thoughtlessness and selfishness, and besides, there’s a pretty cute doc who’s just caught her eye at the hospital she works at. Their years-old marital promises are the furthest thing from either one of their minds, and the idea of divorce has suddenly reared its ugly head.
But Caleb and Catherine don’t think the prospect is that ugly. Ugly to them would be staying together and continuing the ongoing skirmish that has become their lives. She pulls the trigger and gets a divorce attorney, and Caleb’s ready to let the bullet hit him. But then his father decides to do a little compassionate meddling. He gives Caleb a handwritten journal of sorts that chronicles how 40 days of “trying” in just the right way might change everything.
Dad calls it the “Love Dare,” and Caleb reluctantly decides he’s got nothing to lose. So he starts with Day 1. …
Which prompts him to say nothing negative to his wife. Day 2) Do something unexpected as an act of kindness. 3) Buy something that tells her you’re thinking of her. 4) Call to check if she needs anything. 16) Pray for her. 17) Listen to her. 18) Study her again. And on it goes.
Lending a hand are the morsels of homespun wisdom that have a habit of popping out of his friend and colleague Michael’s mouth. An example: “A woman’s like a rose. If you treat her right, she’ll bloom. If you don’t, she’ll wilt.” Also, “When most people promise ‘for better or for worse,’ they only mean for the better.” Invoking the movie’s title, he says, “Fireproof doesn’t mean that a fire will never come, but that when it comes, you’ll be able to withstand it.”
Gently chiding his friend for not working hard enough to save his marriage, Michael says, “You’ll run into a burning building to save people you don’t even know, but you’re going to let your own marriage burn to the ground?” Later, he confesses to Caleb that his first marriage ended in divorce because he fell out of love while “following his heart.” It’s not the right thing to do, he insists, “Don’t just follow your heart, man, because your heart can be deceived.”
[Spoiler Warning] Caleb himself comes up with perhaps the film’s richest nugget: “I have learned that you never leave your partner—especially in a fire.” And I’ll note here in this spoiler paragraph that Caleb doggedly sticks to his 40-day Love Dare, and it utterly reshapes his attitudes and actions toward Catherine. “I am sorry,” he ultimately tells her. “I have trampled on you with my words and my actions.” The movie ends with the once-again happy couple renewing wedding vows and a preacher talking about the difference between a legal marriage contract and a heavenly minded marriage covenant.
Props are appropriately given to couples seeking counseling instead of just calling it quits when they’re on the rocks. And Michael has a quick scene in which he lets his wife know he’s going to always be right there for their kids.
Catherine’s friends give her some bad advice about how to handle Caleb. But the film clearly shows that it is bad advice. Good advice comes from a co-worker who warns Catherine that a man (the doctor) who will woo her while she’s married may be prone to also stray from her after he’s succeeded.
A subplot involving Caleb’s comrades at the fire station illustrates the difference between having healthy self-confidence and being a braggart. Catherine is shown giving care to her ailing mom.
Asked whether he’s afraid of dying on the job, Michael responds, “No. ‘Cause I know where I’m goin’.” He adds, “I just don’t want to get there ’cause I got hit by a train!”
Much more specific and instructional about matters of eternal destiny are conversations between Caleb and his dad, John. John lets us know that he found Christ late in life, and that in doing so, everything about his life was changed. “The Lord did a work in us,” he says, including his wife. “[And] He’s been at work all around you, you just haven’t realized it.” God cares about your life, he tells his son, and he talks about Jesus dying on the cross to create a way for us to meet Him.
The gist of his ongoing spiritual coaching is that while marriage is certainly worth fighting to preserve even without God in the picture, you need Jesus to make any kind of a real go at it. When Caleb proffers the idea that he doesn’t need Jesus because he’s been a pretty good guy and he helps others in his job, John responds, “His standards are so high He considers hatred to be murder and lust to be adultery.” We all need God’s forgiveness and salvation, he continues.
An especially poignant moment arrives when Caleb wails, “How am I supposed to show love for somebody who over and over and over constantly rejects me?” As the camera swings around to include a crude wooden cross in the frame, John quietly responds, “That’s a good question.”
[Spoiler Warning] When Caleb tells his dad that the Love Dare changed his life, John corrects him, “God changed your life. Love Dare was just a tool He used.” And, indeed, Caleb has accepted Christ as his Lord.
John quotes James 1:19. The film also references Genesis 2:24, Romans 5:8 and Romans 10:9. Gospel- and worship-themed songs run throughout in the soundtrack.
Day 23 is all about watching out for parasites, or addictions. This is one of the areas that Caleb most struggles with. Internet pornography has its hooks in him, and it has contributed considerably to the problems he and Catherine have. “When you’re alone, that’s what you default to,” Catherine accuses him, “and there is nothing honorable about it.” Weeks later, we watch Caleb take a baseball bat to his computer, symbolically ending its control over him.
Of note here is the fact that the film not only calls pornography what it is, an addiction and a sin, but it does so while handling this sexual subject with delicate decorum. We’re never shown anything salacious on Caleb’s screen, and conversations stop at “pleasuring yourself” and Catherine’s flat-out refusal to “compete with that.”
Catherine’s big temptation, meanwhile, is the kind physician who keeps popping into her world at work. They fraternize and flirt, sharing lunches and longing glances.
Caleb never lays a hand on Catherine, but one of their disputes turns quite tense when he looms over her, yelling and wagging his finger in her face. He similarly brandishes a threateningly clenched fist when confronting Catherine’s doctor friend, warning him to keep his distance from his wife.
Fighting hard to prevent his temper from coaxing him to do something he’ll really regret, Caleb attacks his trash can, throwing bags at his garage door and whacking at the plastic bin. As mentioned, he also takes a bat to his computer, destroying it.
After a car wreck, the driver is seen screaming in terror as a train bears down on her already mangled vehicle which rests on the tracks. Blood drips from her nose, and a friend in the passenger seat is unconscious. The scenes that show her rescue and, later, the extraction of a little girl from a burning house are nerve-racking and perilous. The train almost strikes Michael. And Caleb barely makes it to safety, crawling through flames and debris.
Just one stray comment about a man thinking he’s aging like a fine wine.
We see teens drag racing. (They get into that serious accident.)
Writer/director Alex Kendrick and his writer/producer brother, Stephen, aren’t under any illusions that this small-budget movie will turn Hollywood on its head. Stephen told Plugged In Online, “When people butcher our films on Rotten Tomatoes and say, ‘This isn’t Oscar-winning material,’ we say, ‘We know!’ We’re just people who are working with what we have at a small church in Georgia. It’s truly a loaves and fishes story.”
What they do want is for their earnest project to turn your marriage upside down.
You might notice that some of the lines in Fireproof feel a little wooden. And you might notice that the script indulges more dialogue (most of it spiritual) than you’re used to hearing in movies about firemen. But the honest truth is that you don’t really care by the time the credits roll, because you’re too busy feeling your own feelings and thinking your own thoughts about your own relationships. This is the kind of movie that succeeds, sometimes despite itself, because it does a superlative job of digging into serious issues that so deeply affect so many of us every day.
The first time I saw this film I was alone in a cramped and cold projection booth, scribbling notes as fast as my fingers would fly. The second time, though, I was with my bride of 14 years, and I was in no mood to write a movie review. All I wanted to do was hold her hand. And when the last scene faded from the screen, I could do nothing less than turn to her and whisper, “If you ever wanted to leave me, I would try to make it so hard for you! I would do everything he just did and so much more to keep you by my side.” She breathed in response, “I would never leave you.” I spent the rest of the day thanking God that I was so fortunate as to never have to doubt her.
Others who are right now in the middle of ugly emotions driven by marital neglect, apathy and want, will surely be compelled by Fireproof to skip such emotional promises and tender bonding and instead break out the survival gear right away, putting into practice some of the principles they’ve just seen brought to life. That, I believe, would make the Kendrick brothers far happier than any golden statue ever could. It’d make our Savior happier, too.