Judge P.S. Colbert dedicates this review to Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe.
"Ahh…the last great macho profession bites the dust!"
On Aug. 17, 2010, Fire Captain Cynthia Barbee (nee Fralick) retired after twenty-seven years of dedicated service. In 1983, Fralick made headlines by becoming the first female firefighter in Los Angeles County Fire Department's (then) sixty-year history.
On Sept. 23, 1986, a version of Fralick's story was told in Firefighter, a TV-movie starring Nancy McKeon, best known for playing Joanne "Jo" Polniaczek, rough diamond of the preppy Eastland all-girls boarding school on The Facts Of Life sitcom.
In common with Jo, Cindy Fralick is a tough and determined young woman, but there the similarities end. McKeon has always displayed a fine, naturalistic acting style, and here she easily establishes Cindy as an everywoman worth rooting for, as opposed to a driven fighter with a chip on her shoulder, or a super-human "feminist icon." In what arguably counts as the film's pivotal scene, Cindy, on the verge of dropping out of her training course, confides to her superior, B.C. Thompson (Ed Lauter, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas—flawless, as usual): "You know, when I thought about becoming a firefighter, I wasn't out to be something special, I just wanted the job. And now there's all this pressure. Everybody knows who I am…I mean, it's just getting to me. I got a letter from a girl who said I was her hero. I don't want to be anybody's hero."
I flat out admired the subtlety of Firefighter, and the fact that it tells an inspirational and motivational story without an axe to grind. Whereas I expected hordes of bullying, sexually harassing men dogging Cindy at nearly every turn, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the principals involved (including the trainees she competed with) were encouraging and accepting of the ground-breaking applicant in their midst. There was some sexual discrimination involved, of course, but the film wisely and realistically shows that it came from men and women alike.
Veteran TV helmer Robert Michael Lewis (Pray For The Wildcats) keeps things rolling at a brisk pace, abetted by a strong cast of supporting players, including kindly Barry Corbin (Anger Management) as Cindy's paternal captain, hunky Vincent Irizarry (Heartbreak Ridge) as her potential love interest, and stunning blonde Amanda Wyss (A Nightmare on Elm Street) on best friend duty. If it seems like I just listed generic composite characters, it's because Kathryn Montgomery's make-weight teleplay never goes much deeper—Cindy's mother, father, and sister, for instance, aren't identified by name, neither in the script nor in the credits.
Tech for this Sony Pictures' Choice Collection made-on-demand release is surprisingly good, considering its age. There are precious few identifiable blemishes on the full frame picture, and those you'll spot aren't really worth mentioning. The Dolby Digital mono-track also does a commendable job with an admittedly uncomplicated sound design. Extras? Move along, folks—nothing to see here.
As impressed as I was by Firefighter, I couldn't help but be disappointed that this interesting, well-acted, true life tale wasn't accorded more importance than a compact-budgeted (Tuesday) movie-of-the-week, when a feature-length film or a TV miniseries could conceivably delve more deeply into the complexities of Fralick's struggles and accomplishments. Free market solutions aren't always best, after all.
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