Spielberg Month Special Review – “Firewatch”/”Always”

By Marshall Garvey Before we begin, let me acknowledge the obvious: Firewatch, the highly acclaimed 2016 mystery adventure game, is not in any way based on or affiliated with something made by Steven Spielberg. Given its premise, it seems as suited for Spielberg Month as soy sauce on a chocolate cake. After all, it’s a…




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10 minutes

By Marshall Garvey

Before we begin, let me acknowledge the obvious: Firewatch, the highly acclaimed 2016 mystery adventure game, is not in any way based on or affiliated with something made by Steven Spielberg. Given its premise, it seems as suited for Spielberg Month as soy sauce on a chocolate cake. After all, it’s a TellTale-esque game about a firefighter in Wyoming set in 1989 who communicates with a woman named Delilah via walkie-talkie. Not exactly blockbuster material, right?

Except…those details are in fact almost 100% identical to a Steven Spielberg movie, albeit his most forgotten one: Always. Released in 1989, it centers around an aerial firefighter who communicates via radio during his flights with a woman named Dorinda. Additionally, it was shot primarily in Montana and is largely set in Colorado, the states immediately north and south of Wyoming. The similarities are so striking, I even did research before this review to confirm my suspicion that the movie served as the inspiration for the game. As far as I can tell, it isn’t. But still….

Then again, the game has 0% John Goodman, which is like a universe of difference really.

Now, if you know me at all, you know that I dislike Always. In my opinion, it’s one of his few movies that’s just plain bad. But this piece isn’t just going to be a review expounding on why; rather, I’m going to compare and contrast the movie and the game, with occasional comments on similarities and differences in quality. 

Honestly, I love that there’s a game that allows me to even talk about Always at length, much as I may not like it. Rather than just play games based on Spielberg’s universally known action films, being able to touch on one of his quieter and lesser known efforts really gives this month’s project more depth. Besides, it’s not like there’s a game anywhere similar to The Color Purple or The Terminal, so this is as off the beaten path as I can get! 

To begin, let’s address the movie. Released in December 1989, Always is Steven Spielberg’s retelling of one of his favorite childhood films, A Guy Named Joe. Directed by Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz maestro Victor Fleming, that 1943 classic starred Spencer Tracy as a daring World War II pilot named Pete who’s madly in love with Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). During a flying run, he heroically crashes and dies, thus becoming an angel who’s tasked with being the guardian angel of Ted Randall (Van Johnson). The only problem: Ted is now Irene’s new flame, which complicates his heavenly mission.

Always is almost identical, its biggest difference being that it obviously substitutes WWII fighters with firefighting pilots in Montana. Pete Sandich is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who risks life and limb with reckless abandon on each run to the increasing ire of his flame Dorinda (Holly Hunter). He decides to make one last run before taking a safer job at Dorinda’s behest, but a risky maneuver to save his friend Al (John Goodman) sets his engine ablaze. He explodes, and ends up in heaven where an angel (Audrey Hepburn) sends him to train Ted (Brad Johnson). But, well, you know…

“It makes me ill/To see you give/Love and attention at his will…”

While Always is an old-fashioned love story, Firewatch is a mystery adventure. The player assumes control of Henry, who has taken a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming in the summer of 1989. Yet it’s hardly for daredevil heroics like Pete Sandich, as Henry has taken this position as an escape from his deteriorating life. Over the past few years, his wife Julia has tragically developed dementia, ruining a once idyllic marriage. The isolation of the wilderness is just what he needs…or so he hopes.

Upon arriving at the lookout tower, he picks up a radio and strikes up a quick bond with his overseer, Delilah. Much like Dorinda in Always, Delilah is a witty, no-nonsense woman who takes her job seriously, but finds room to strike up a personal bond with Henry almost instantly. As the summer of 1989 rolls day by day, the two steadily bond as they share cringeworthy jokes and emotional confessions about the life struggles that have led their stories to intersect in the wilderness.

However, it’s one not entirely forged by peaceful means. In addition to worrying about the inevitable burgeoning wildfires, Henry and Delilah realize they’re being heavily surveilled by an unknown person. Add in two teenage girl campers who suddenly go missing and a morbid discovery deep in a cave, and Henry’s hopes of a serene escape from life are quickly supplanted by hoping to make it through the summer in one piece.

Even just wanting to go fishing becomes a potentially hazardous endeavor.

The most salient trait that Always and Firewatch share is that their stories have a heartbreaking romance at their core. The movie hinges on Pete’s tragic death, while the game’s main story is prefaced by detailing Henry gradually losing his wife to dementia. Yet there’s a chasm of difference in how they handle these love stories.

In the years leading up to finally watching it, my expectation (or at least hope) was that Always would handle its romantic plot in a subtle fashion. Quite the opposite, it eschews subtlety in favor of hammy dialogue and overwrought sentimentality in depicting Pete and Dorinda’s affection. Their first scenes together in the opening of the film, rather than establish their bond and developing their characters, has them bantering back and forth with obnoxious jokes. When they aren’t doing that, their romantic utterances vacillate between unbearably saccharine and just plain generic.

When Pete dies, the scene, while well executed, carries little resonance. The ending scene suffers in a similar way. In and of itself, it’s actually quite touching and graceful, with Pete reciting a heartfelt monologue even though he knows Dorinda is unaware of his presence. (It’s established that his ghostly words are heard by the living as their own thoughts.) But because of how awful the opening scenes are (not to mention how little chemistry Dreyfuss and Hunter have while Pete’s still alive), it’s robbed of its full impact.

Firewatch differs in that its tragic love story is more of a prologue to the main narrative. Yet there’s an ever-present tinge of budding romance in that main story as well. Henry and Delilah spend most of their time sharing jokes or focusing on the urgency of containing wildfires, but in-between share moments where they establish affection. (My favorite is when Delilah tries to guess what Henry looks like, to which I chose a prompt referencing baseball legend Rollie Fingers.)

The game builds a more believable rapport between them with a walkie-talkie than the movie does for its love triangle with over-the-top dialogue and multiple renditions of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. By being in Henry’s POV the entire time and choosing each radio response, the player feels the unique bond with Delilah on a personal level. The feeling of isolation, coupled with the growing sense of dread as the mystery unfolds, enhances the sense of attachment.

The simplicity of the gameplay and story works 100% in its favor, and leads to a profound impact from beginning to end.

Which isn’t to say there’s no thought given to Henry’s story with his wife, which is told in the beginning through a simple series of text prompts. Even without seeing what Henry’s true love looks like, the player feels genuine empathy as their tale of true love gradually takes one tragic turn after another as the years go by. (In yet another coincidence, they met at a bar in Colorado, where Dorinda and Pete squabble about moving to in the early part of the film before Pete’s death, and where the middle section thereafter takes place.)

Another factor worthy of comparison and contrast is the protagonist. While Pete takes to the sky and Henry idles his time in a tower, they’re both rugged men who seek to contain hazardous wildfires. Once again, though, Firewatch is far superior in presenting its main firefighter. The biggest problem with Pete Sandich is that he feels more like a caricature than a character. Throughout the film, there aren’t enough moments that really give him unique dimension. Most of his dialogue sounds like a bad parody of 40’s movies, making him all the harder to relate to.

Henry, on the other hand, is flawed and believable. As you play out his story, every detail feels relatable. His desire to use nature as an escape from life’s troubles, as well as his awkwardness as he tries to connect with Delilah, is something almost everyone has experienced. As you play, you can feel the desire to bond with Delilah as a way of filling the void left by Julia. I found myself carefully considering each dialogue selection, as if it were me whiling away the hours in the summer of ’89.

One strength both the movie and game do share is their utilization of respective scenery. Montana and Wyoming are states of unparalleled beauty, and those settings are done full justice. Always was filmed primarily in Montana, specifically the small town of Libby and the Kootenai National Forest just north. However, its most beautiful scene, in which Pete and the angel Hap walk through an endless golden field, was shot in Sprague, Washington.

The artwork for Firewatch is equally lush. The beauty of the game is simple, yet indelible. There’s just something about walking through the forest, glancing up to see the setting sun and the stars beginning to appear in the night sky, that’s mesmerizing. The best is at sunset, when every tree and rock is cast in a golden hue. This is one of those games where you frequently set aside your current task to take it all in, as if you were traipsing through the forests of Wyoming yourself.

Whether graphically rendered or shot on site in Montana, these two titles make you appreciate the verdant beauty of the region.

Ultimately, I realize comparing the quality of a movie and video game has its limits, as they’re ultimately different mediums. Yet Firewatch and Always are so similar in subject matter that it makes their differences in quality and presentation all the more interesting. Altogether, the game succeeds thanks to its minimalist approach to everything from storytelling to dialogue to sound design. With all of its dialogue happening solely via walkie talkie and tape, and the simplicity of enjoying the nature scenery, it attains an impact unlike any other game I’ve experienced.

The movie, while featuring a great cast and some good aerial scenes, is so overdone with sentimentality at each waking moment that it never gains traction. Given Spielberg’s childhood affection for A Guy Named Joe, he was no doubt trying to recapture ’40s romance in 1989. But it really doesn’t work. Perhaps if he had taken a quieter, more modern approach to updating the story, it could have worked. Maybe like…well, the one that helps Firewatch succeed!

Come to think of it…Always does have a few scenes that show the firefighters on the ground as Pete and Al dump retardant on raging forest fires. Could Henry be one of those firefighters, so distraught by his wife’s dementia AND Pete’s death that he retreated into his more isolated position in Wyoming? I mean I know it’s not as important a fan theory as figuring out the ending of Infinity War, but…

Pictured above: Henry. Fan theory confirmed. Maybe. Kind of.