Ladder 49 (2004) ***
Directed by Jay Russell. Written by Lewis Colick. Photography, James L. Carter. Editing, Bud Smith & Scott Smith. Production design, Tony Burrough. Music, William Ross. Producer, Casey Silver. A Touchstone Pictures & Beacon Pictures release. 115 minutes. PG-13. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, et al.
Since 9/11 both cops and firefighters have been seen – rightly so – as heroes. The former occupy much space in movies and on TV, but firemen have not, even though they and their red trucks always were and are more than popular among the young and the old. So, “Ladder 49” a celebration of firefighters, is timely and very welcome.
“Ladder” is set in Baltimore, was remarkably well shot there, in Annapolis and Newport News,Va. To my knowledge, little or nothing was filmed in a Hollywood studio—but if it was, it was done brilliantly. Whatever the SFX (special effects), they are superior and do not feel computer-born.
The visuals are stunning. The film’s start is a most impressive and spectacular series of sequences in which the firemen fight a huge conflagration in a tall building -- and save lives. No matter how many action movies you’ve seen, this towering inferno is a nail-biter for the audience. The picture’s cameras move around splendidly, contribute convincingly to your “you are there” feeling.
A major focus is on fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) who saves lives but eventually gets trapped under debris. This is, in a sense, the meat of the picture. As he waits to be rescued by his comrades, the film switches back and forth to Jack’s biography in chronologically set episodes. These start out some ten years ago when he arrived at the fire station as a rookie. Then come major chunks of his life, personal and professional, spread over several years.
I will not reveal or even mention the details, specifics and evolutions of Jack’s private and/or professional life. What is attaching –and runs the gamut from humor to tragedy-- is the camaraderie among the firemen. It is the sort of true friendship that can be rarely found in other professions. In fact, this is something that in real life exists almost exclusively among people in uniform: firefighters, soldiers, cops. You rarely see genuine comradery among civilians, be they business people, scientists, gangsters, politicians, actors and movie people, academics – you name it. Yes, also journalists and film critics too.
The picture includes a great deal of harrowing situations, yet there’s also quite a lot of humor which springs naturally from the co-workers and their lives.
In Jack’s case, the friendship extends to his superior, Captain Kennedy who is also his mentor in most simpatico ways. He is played well, quietly and thoughtfully by John Travolta. Yes, it’s a supporting role, but not a demotion. Add it to the select number of movies in which top bananas in lesser parts often enhance any sort of subject.
Are firemen seen as heroes in the movie? Definitely yes, and certainly they deserve this filmic homage.
If you are a nitpicker you could be critical of the fact that the bonding among the men excludes any rivalries, minor antagonisms or dislikes. You might also say that there’s a bit of cuteness in some off-duty scenes. But none of the above bothers me.
What does, however – in a major way -- is that the movie had very mixed reviews, the poor or middlin’ ones being quite unfair. I would like very much to hear from real firemen who have seen the movie – one that they owe themselves to watch. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.