One of the most enduring images in the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, centered on the cleanup at the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers at Ground Zero. As the tons of debris were gradually removed, periodically the body of a victim from the attack would be uncovered. At that point work would stop at the site and an impromptu memorial service would be held for the body, often a firefighter or policeman who was killed during the rescue effort.
The shadows of 9/11 certainly fall on Ladder 49, the first movie about firemen to be released since that tragedy. But it's also a story that can stand very well on its own, a compelling tribute to all of those who would "go into a building when everyone else is running out."
Joaquin Phoenix, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as the dastardly Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, gets to play the hero this time as Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison. We are first introduced to Jack during a spectacular blaze in a 20-story waterfront warehouse. Jack is part of the search-and-rescue team, entering the burning building to locate any survivors and help them escape.
As he is lowering one man to safety, Jack's own life is endangered when the floor he is standing on collapses, sending him tumbling down several stories and trapping him inside. Injured and unable to get out on his own, Jack must wait while the rest of the team tries to get through the wreckage and rescue him.
This touches off a series of flashbacks, as we watch the progress of Jack's career from his very first day in the firehouse. The action frequently switches back to the "present," as Jack communicates with his chief, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), and works his way to a safer spot while his fellow firefighters struggle to locate him before the building is completely destroyed.
So we see Jack battle his first blaze, working his way into an apartment building with a firehose, careful not to step on the horde of rats who are making a hasty exit. He meets Linda (Jacinda Barrett) in a grocery store that same day, and quickly falls in love, gets married and has a family.
Along the way he also makes the choice to move to the search-and-rescue team, sees some of his comrades injured and even killed in the line of duty, and risks his own life to make a dramatic rescues, even receiving a special commendation. And there is the camaraderie of the firehouse, where good-natured practical jokes help forge stronger bonds.
But because of the inherent danger of her husband's profession, Linda occasionally wonders if Jack might want to find a safer line of work; one of his kids even says, "I don't want you to get hurt anymore." But Jack presses on, believing he can make a difference in his small part of the world.
The major shortcoming of the film is its limited scope. We get to know Jack Morrison pretty well, but none of the other characters are even superficially explored or make even a minor impression. For example, another fireman does most of the sweet talking in the scene where Jack first meets Linda, but I honestly can't remember which one it was. Nobody seems to have much of a life away from the firehouse, unless it's the neighborhood tavern where the entire company always seems to be blowing off steam. Even Jack's family is really in the background for most of the film, popping up periodically to bring him back down to earth.
And while he is the most famous name in the cast, Travolta's role is surprisingly small, nothing more than joining in on a few firehouse pranks, providing an occasional pep talk for his charges and speaking at funerals.
Thus much of the burden of carrying this film rests on Phoenix's shoulders, but he is up to the task. Even though his performance is often surprisingly subdued, it's obvious that Jack is a man in love with his job, who truly gets a kick out of helping others.
And director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting, My Dog Skip) and his special effects team make up for the lack of character development with some truly thrilling firefighting sequences. The warehouse fire is simply spectacular, and other scenes do an excellent job of showing us the real danger that these men must face in the line of duty.
In the end, Ladder 49 is a well-crafted tribute to the many dedicated firefighters who risk life and limb to make our world a little safer.Discussion starters
- Who are the heroes in your life? What makes them heroic for you?
- How would you react if someone in your family were in a dangerous profession like a fireman? How difficult would it be to be a father and a fireman?
- How is your family prepared for the possibility of a fire in your house?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Ladder 49 is rated PG-13 "for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language." The firefighting scenes can be scary, particularly the main warehouse fire depicted throughout the movie, and there are some tragic consequences. There is some foul language, including a few uses of God's name in vain. The fireman spend a lot of their downtime drinking in a local saloon. Although they are later married, one scene indicates premarital relations between Jack and Linda.
Photos © Copyright Touchstone Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/07/04
John Travolta may be the most prominent name in the promotions for Ladder 49, but he's not in much of the movie. He plays a Baltimore fire chief named Mike Kennedy, managing a group of courageous firefighters who are frequently asked to put their lives on the line to save others. The lead role of Jack Morrison belongs to Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, The Village), who seems to have escaped the typecasting that could have resulted from his role as a perverse villain in Gladiator.
Clearly, director Jay Russell's film could be seen as exploiting the nation's increasing admiration for firefighters after the tragic loss of so many brave souls in the attacks on the World Trade Center three years ago. But even though mainstream critics are pointing out its unimaginative plot and its unconvincing and simplistic characterizations, most religious press critics are thrilled to see hard-working, principled, religious men being honored in this way.
"Would you rushing into a towering inferno to save the life of a stranger, risking your life and leaving your wife and children to carry on without you? This is the question asked by Ladder 49, and it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian."
That's how the review by Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) begins. Her raves continue, and she concludes praising the "positive images of Christianity that remain unsullied by Hollywood's usual negative clichés and stereotypes. A good film for families of older children, this film left few eyes dry during the screening, so take a hankie—and someone you love."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "It's refreshing to see a film with unvarnished heroism positively portrayed. These men are not plaster saints (they all have faults, some worse than others), but they remain heroes. While some of the secondary characters are not very well developed, I found myself caring intensely about Jack, his family and his comrades. Ladder 49 has a lot of heart. It isn't so much scorched by its 'weepy' portrayal of single-minded everymen as it is by foul language, heavy drinking, some coarse sexual joking (and loose sexual morals) and the trivialization of what Roman Catholics consider a sacred religious rite."
Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The major shortcoming of the film is its limited scope. We get to know Jack Morrison pretty well, but none of the other characters are even superficially explored or make even a minor impression. Nobody seems to have much of a life away from the firehouse, unless it's the neighborhood tavern where the entire company always seems to be blowing off steam." But he adds, "Russell and his special effects team make up for the lack of character development with some truly thrilling firefighting sequences. In the end, Ladder 49 is a well-crafted tribute to the many dedicated firefighters who risk life and limb to make our world a little safer."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Without being maudlin, 'Ladder 49' puts an admirable face on family values, friendship, loss, sacrifice and all those virtues. Though the film is an unabashed paean to firemen, you can't help but leave the movie with a renewed respect for the dangerous job they do."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Russell clearly wanted to pay homage to the bravery of the often faceless men and women who volunteer to put themselves in life-threatening situations to save people they don't even know. He does so with an honest and accurate depiction of one man's experiences as a firefighter."
Megan Basham (National Review) says the film's "good-hearted view of the world will likely leave Ladder 49 vulnerable to rabid attacks from the culture critics who don't much appreciate such straightforward sentiment. Miffed that the film contains no ironic, seedy underbelly, they will say that it is a sanitized version of reality. They will say that it is contrived and that it violates the rules of diversity and sophistication by including no female firefighters. They will say that it doesn't look like America. And they will be wrong."from Film Forum, 10/14/04
Lindsay Goodier (Relevant) says, "The story is simple and avoids glorifying the life of a fire fighter, but attempts to keep things true to life. Because of this simplicity, there are times in which the action is a little slow moving. Some will appreciate the true-to-life perspective, while others may find themselves reaching for their cell phones to play games in order to pass the time."
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