When I was a kid, our heroes were police officers, astronauts, and firemen. Somewhere along the way, those heroes were replaced by movie stars, rappers, and professional athletes. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that per se, but it does show how times have changed. As unspeakably tragic as it was, the events of Sept. 11 nevertheless reminded us that the actions of a firefighter are infinitely more admirable and heroic than those of any celebrity. Ladder 49 is a film that celebrates the profession in a way that is both moving and realistic.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a Baltimore firefighter. In the opening scenes, his engine company is called to a blaze at huge warehouse. Jack puts his life on the line to save a man trapped on the twelfth floor; he uses a rope to lower the guy out a window and into a cherry picker. Just then, the floor falls through, dropping Jack several floors below. Injured and unable to find a way out, he maintains radio contact with his captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who promises that the unit will find him. Time is limited, as the building contains explosive materials that could detonate.
As he lies amid the rubble, Jack flashes back to various events in his recent past. We see him on his first day, when Kennedy and the others hazed him. Jack also remembers his courtship of Linda (played by former “Real World: London” star Jacinda Barrett), which ultimately led to marriage and children. And, this being a fire company, there are injuries and deaths to cope with.
Ladder 49 goes back and forth between the past and present. In doing so, it gives us a clear picture of what the life of a firefighter is like. We all know that these brave citizens put their lives on the line regularly. But the film expands on that idea by giving us a more intimate glimpse into what doing this job is really like. For example, we see the emotional toll it takes not only on the firefighters but on their families as well. Linda worries that Jack will be killed on the job, but she also is proud of what he does. Normally Jack can push the fear out of his mind, but when a colleague is hurt or killed, it becomes something that he can’t hide from.
The movie also shows us the camaraderie that exists within fire companies. The members pull pranks, bond with each other, and sometimes even fight amongst themselves. Nevertheless, there is always a spirit of brotherhood, because their lives are in each others’ hands. Last, but certainly not least, Ladder 49 suggests that firefighters do their job for a reason: once they experience the thrill of saving a life, they feel a responsibility to save as many as possible, even if it means putting their own safety in jeopardy.
The last major movie about firefighters was Backdraft, and I was no big fan of that film. Rather than sticking with what was really interesting, it tried to force in a stereotypically lame Hollywood plot about the search for a serial arsonist. The beauty of Ladder 49 is that it’s about the characters and the sacrifices they make in their daily lives to answer a calling. There’s no “high concept” at work here - just a heartfelt, meaningful examination of what it’s like to do such dangerous work.
This is one of those movies where everything comes together beautifully. The acting is great, with Phoenix and Travolta really delivering affecting, three-dimensional performances, and the screenplay wisely keeps things at a realistic level. I want to pay notice to the direction by Jay Russell, though. I met Russell (who also directed My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting) at a film festival three years ago. What became apparent from his participation in a panel discussion was that he cares genuinely about being true to the material. In this case, Russell creates some spectacular scenes that convey the dangers of firefighting with nail-biting intensity, but he also gets to more quiet truths as well. There is a scene in which the fire alarm goes off and the members of the unit rush out of the station. Russell lets the camera linger on the empty interior, showing a pair of boots on the floor and an open bag of chips sitting on a table. This brief moment does a lot to convey the idea that firefighters literally drop everything the second they are needed; they put others before themselves. Those little details help make Ladder 49 so enlightening, and there are a lot of them.
Too often we equate heroism with the act of doing something “big.” The reality, however, is that we’re surrounded by heroes all the time. Ladder 49 is a tribute to the simple everyday heroism of those who “run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out.” The movie shows all sides – the good and the bad, the joyous and the tragic – and I walked out of the theater feeling very grateful that there are people like this in the world.
( out of four)
Note: I spoke to members of the Hummels Wharf, Pennsylvania, Fire Company, who served as extras on the film and allowed one of their trucks to be used in its production. One of the firefighters told me that Backdraft was so unrealistic that they made fun of it, while Ladder 49 was “probably the truest depiction” of the job that Hollywood could offer. I think that says a lot.
Ladder 49 is rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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