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Heroic First Responder Movies for Your Watch List


July 26, 2023

Looking for some inspiration? What about some heart-pumping action scenes? Or maybe human drama that examines the psychological toll of some of the toughest jobs on the planet? These films about first responders have all that and more. The picks below include everything from under-the-radar documentaries to made-for-TV-movies to Hollywood blockbusters, each giving a different view into the lives of first responders and the challenges they face on the job.

Movies About Paramedics

The three movies about paramedics are all very different from each other. But they all have something valuable to say about what it means to be a first responder who deals with life and death every day.

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

This film follows a burnt-out ambulance paramedic, played by Nicolas Cage, over three nights on the job. He’s haunted by all the people he couldn’t save – literally, seeing their ghosts – as he tries to keep a grip on his reality. While the action may be a little too “Hollywood,” this Martin Scorsese-directed film is tense and engaging. It explores the psychological toll of being a paramedic.

Where to watch: Free on Kanopy; with a subscription on Paramount+, Spectrum, Sling; rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Redbox, AppleTV

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Tell Me and I Will Forget (2010)

If accuracy and realism are important to you, then this 2010 South African documentary is it. It follows paramedics in Pretoria and Johannesburg fifteen years after the end of Apartheid during a time of high crime and violence. This film is undoubtedly difficult to watch, but it’s a compelling look at the struggles of the paramedics and of the nation.

Where to watch: Free on Plex, Tubi, Local Now, the Roku Channel; with a subscription on Philo, Frndly


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Ambulance Girl (2005)

Kathy Bates stars as a food-writer-turned-volunteer-EMT in this made-for-television movie. It’s based on the memoir of Jane Stern, who struggled with clinical depression and phobias. These themes are examined in the movie. This comedy-drama is a good look into the life of a female paramedic.

Where to watch: Free on the movie’s website

Movies About Firefighters

Whether rushing into burning buildings or battling massive wildfires, firefighters exemplify bravery in the face of extreme danger. Their selfless commitment to protecting lives and property has inspired many powerful films. 

Ladder 49 (2004)

Ask non-firefighters what movie about firefighters they like, and Backdraft is often the first movie mentioned. Ask firefighters, and it’s Ladder 49. Joaquin Phoenix plays a Baltimore firefighter who gets trapped inside a 20-story building. While awaiting rescue, he relives his life as a firefighter in a series of flashbacks. This film gets high marks for accuracy, and not just for the firefighting scenes. It also portrays the bond between firefighters, what life is like at the station, and the excitement and fear of the job.  

Where to watch: Rent on Vudu

Trial by Fire (aka Smoke Jumper) (2008)

This movie is one of the few about smokejumpers, elite firefighters who are trained to parachute directly into wildland fire areas. It follows the challenges of a young woman firefighter, played by Brooke Burns, who wants to become a smokejumper after the death of her firefighter father. She’s determined to overcome the odds and prove she can handle the job.

Where to watch: Free or free with ads on the Roku Channel, Plex, Redbox, Tubi, Freevee, Filmzie; rent or buy on Vudu

BURN: One Year on the Frontlines of the Battle to Save Detroit (2012)

Produced by Denis Leary and directed by Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, this documentary follows Engine Company 50 of the Detroit Fire Department for a year. It documents how the firefighters try to keep control in the city with the highest arson rate in the country as it crumbles around them. True heroes like the firefighters in this film don’t need the Hollywood treatment; their bravery, fortitude, and dedication to the job are inspirational.

Where to watch: Free on Kanopy, Plex, Tubi; rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV


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Movies About Police Officers

There’s no shortage of police movies, but the most highly praised are about detectives – think LA Confidential and Chinatown. For movies about police officers who are out on the streets and the first to the scene, check out these three great police movies.

End of Watch (2012)

This is the movie police officers cite when asked about an accurate and entertaining movie about being a police officer. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play young L.A. police officers on patrol in South Central. Written and directed by David Ayer, the film is shot documentary-style, upping the tension and feeling of realism.

Where to watch: Rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Redbox, AppleTV

World Trade Center (2006)

Oliver Stone directed this based-on-true-events movie about the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Two Port Authority PD officers, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña, become trapped as the South Tower collapses onto them and must hope for rescue amid the chaos. While undoubtedly a Hollywood movie, Stone enlisted the input and advice of real-life first responders and others who were there on the day to help with accuracy.

Where to watch: Free on Kanopy, Pluto TV; free with subscription to Paramount+; rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Redbox, AppleTV


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Hot Fuzz (2007)

The only straight-up comedy on this list, Hot Fuzz is about two British police officers, played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who have to get to the bottom of a series of murders in a small, sleepy village. Edgar Wright wrote and directed the movie in his signature style, taking inspiration from other films to satirize and pay homage to them. The main plotline may be a little less than life-like, but this movie gets points for realism for its funny and accurate depiction of things like paperwork and standing guard, which are typically too boring for most cop movies.

Where to watch: Free with a subscription to Amazon Prime Video; rent or buy on Vudu, Redbox, AppleTV

Erin Danly is a freelance writer whose work focuses on marketing content and verbal branding for B2B and B2C clients. Before turning to writing, she was a pastry chef and a psychology lab manager at Columbia University. Erin lives with her family in Mt. Pleasant, SC.