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Ladder 49 (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 01 October 2004
In 1903, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter made one of the first narrative movies, “Life of an American Fireman.” That title would fit “Ladder 49” equally well, as it shows us the life of a particular fireman. This is the first major movie about firefighters made since 9/11, an event which, if it did nothing else, raised the regard in which Americans hold firefighters. This movie virtually enshrines them, which is both its weakness and its strength.

The firefighting scenes are varied and spectacular; visual effects supervisor Peter Donan (who died soon after the film was completed) demonstrates conclusively there’s still a lot of life left in conventional, non-CGI effects. The fires here aren’t as mysteriously haunting as those in “Backdraft” of a few years ago, but that movie was structured as a melodrama, with heightened emotions, heroes and villains. Fire itself was treated as an almost living entity that sought to devour everything in its path. Here, fire is just fire—destructive but not the near-monster it was in “Backdraft.” The result is that the fires are less astonishing here, and somehow less threatening.

A fire in a grain warehouse on a Baltimore dock is being fought by several companies, including search-and-rescue specialist Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix). As he’s rescuing a terrified civilian from an upper floor in the tall building, his long-time supervisor Capt. Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) arrives below. Though Jack does engineer the rescue of the civilian, he’s trapped himself, and Mike orders all firefighters to search for him.

In a series of flashbacks, we see Jack’s firefighting career; he’s stationed at the same firehouse all along. He’s given a mild hazing when he arrives as a newcomer, but soon fits into the station life. Like the others, whenever the alarm bell sounds (interestingly, just once), he’s on the truck and out the door.

We continually return to Jack in the burning warehouse, as he tries to get to an area where he can be more easily rescued. Between these brief scenes, we see him working on the “pipes”—handling hoses at the fires, we see him meet attractive, feisty Linda (Jacinda Barrett); they’re married, they have children. One of his best friends (Billy Burke) at the station is killed in a mishap, and Jack chooses to adopt the late friend’s job, far more dangerous than operating hoses.
Somewhere in the film, someone says the great question about firefighters is when everyone else is rushing out of a burning building, why do they rush in? The movie makes it clear that this isn’t a job, it’s a calling, something these people feel they must do. They get a rush when they rescue someone, but mostly it’s long periods of waiting punctuated by brief, intense moments of fighting fires. (And if you think these salaried firefighters are heroes, consider volunteers.)

The script by Lewis Colick tries to avoid all melodrama, to present just a simple story of one firefighter, no heroes, no villains, no contrived situations, just The Life of An American Fireman. This is a clear and honest approach, even if it takes a little getting used to, but it carries with it predictable pitfalls—and director Jay Russell (“Tuck Everlasting”) isn’t able to maneuver his way around all of them.

Even for central characters like Jack, Mike and Linda, characterization is rather thin; the rest of the firefighters are mostly background figures. The strong, colorful Robert Patrick gets a few moments in which he’s shown as a contrary character, but these moments are brief and scattered through the film. It’s rare these days when Travolta gets to play a normal person, but he’s still effective—the script doesn’t give him any flavor except a taste for cigars and loud boxer shorts. It’s tough to build a rounded character out of those kinds of details.

The movie wants to be basically a docudrama, but it’s emotionally soft and the material seems tweaked to maximize the goodness of the firefighters. Almost everyone at the station is Catholic, and they all go to the same church. They all go to the same bar, they host backyard cookouts for all their co-workers and their families. There’s little sense of conflict—and there wouldn’t be in real life. But it makes for a bland movie, at least in terms of interaction of the characters.

The fires in “Backdraft” may look more spectacular than those here, but they couldn’t possibly SOUND more spectacular. As often with big-scale movies, it’s hard to pluck out of the credits those who were principally responsible for the sound, which is especially regrettable here. (For what it’s worth, the sound mixer was Kirk Francis.) The sound in “Ladder 49” is the most impressive aspect of the movie; side and rear speakers are used in all the fire sequences, very realistically. Sounds of vehicles and men envelop us in a kind of controlled chaos, in that sense very like the fires we’re watching.

Director Russell is still fairly new to this game, which is demonstrated more in small details than in the broader strokes—once the movie is designed in terms of storyboards, locations have been chosen and the technical crew in place, whoever directed “Ladder 49” would have made a movie that looks much like this one. Though the overall approach shows a scrupulous avoidance of the most melodramatic details, Russell lets them slip in anyway. Jack and Linda “meet cute” over frozen foods at the supermarket. When one of Jack’s co-workers is injured, Jack’s son tells him he doesn’t want his daddy to get hurt anywhere. You can tell by the way the camera lingers on one fireman’s extinguished cigarette, that he’s about to die. I’m sure that Colick and Russell feel that their ending is unsentimental, but it’s not, although it is appropriate.

Making a movie about firefighters presents challenges that movies about cops never do. Cops are fighting bad guys, human beings whose motivations can be made clear to us. Events can build to a climax without distorting the material—in fact, to a degree that structure is inherent in the material. But firefighters often begin their work at the most dramatic instant, and what they do has a falling action—fires are gradually put out, they’re not climactically extinguished. A firefighter’s life just isn’t really the stuff of movie-style drama, and the effort to make it so is a little strained.

However, no one can gainsay that such movies should not be made; obviously they should, to remind us once again that these people are there to save our lives and our property by putting theirs at risk, day in, day out, the world over. “Ladder 49” is well worth seeing, even though it doesn’t work particularly well as a story. It’s something different—it enshrines people who deserve it. And no working fireman, anywhere, should have to pay to see “Ladder 49.”

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