When I was asked to review Ladder 49 I jumped at the chance, mostly for very personal reasons. My late father-in-law served as a New York City firefighter for some thirty five years. I would sit with him for hours listening intently to his stories of everyday life in the fire house, stories of heroic rescues and dramatic battles against flame, all as if it was just another day at the office. For him, and the millions of this brave group of men and women, it is just another day. As I watched this film those incredible stories came back to me, moved from memory to sights and sounds in front of me. The film focuses on Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) a member of a Baltimore ladder company, the division of the fire department that generally implements rescues. In the opening Jack is trapped in a burning building, cut off from his fellow fire fighters, dying. He flashes back over his ten years on the job. As a rookie he was a butt end of a lot of hazing and practical jokes. Knowing it was part of the job and that it was necessary to build the unique bond firefighters have, he endures it willingly. While out with a buddy from the house he picks up a girl, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), that is far more than the typical Hollywood action hero arm candy, she becomes his wife, his partner in life. In his decade of fighting fires Jack grows not only in the job but as a man. He knows that what he does is not an average job, it is more than a vocation, it is his life, what defines him as a human being. Life in the firehouse is unlike any other job, one day he may be required to run into a burning building, the next may be found sitting in front of the television with his co-workers. The boss of the company, Captain Jack Kennedy (John Travolta) is like a protective father to his men. From my talks with my father-in-law I could understand a bit more about this character, a true firefighter that now must be a boss instead of fighting the fires personally. Working besides Jack are his friends and fellow firefighters, Tommy (Morris Chestnut), Don (Kevin Daniels), Lenny (Robert Patrick) and Frank (Kevin Chapman). To the man they are dedicated to their calling.
This film coming after the horrible events and extraordinary acts of September 11th are like the films the studios released right after World War Two. True, they events shown here are somewhat cliché but when you consider the jobs these people do they deserve to be lionized. After all, if you saw a building completely engulfed in flames would your first and only thought be to run in to it? Because of this I can easily overlook some of the more melodramatic moments in the film. At its heart, and it has plenty of heart, is a film about the life and career of a man that does the unthinkable for a living. Jack is not so much drawn to what he does for a living as much as it is natural for him. Linda is supportive, knowing her man is special, in every way above other men. This film also shows that it takes something extra to be a wife of a firefighter, a woman needs to be brave beyond the norm to sit there day after day knowing full well that her husband may not come home or possibly come home badly burned. She is not just a wife, she is a partner, sharing her mate with another family, firefighters.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of those actors that have achieved greatness with any genre he tackles. His style is natural, unassuming and completely believable. Whether he plays a Roman emperor, a young man fighting aliens or a firefighter his talent pulls the audience in, allowing us to identify with the human characters he portrays. Here Phoenix gives us the retrospective of a life, one filled with tragedy and triumph. One thing that has to be said about John Travolta is he is never timid in his work. He is willing to take on roles and make them his own. Like the great Shakespearian actors of days gone by his is now making the transition from younger roles to more mature characters. The only downside of his performance here is he plays Kennedy as a little too perfect. Even for a supporting role he could have introduced some foibles into this portrayal. In contrast Jacinda Barrett really fleshes out Linda. She shows the trepidation this woman has about her husband’s career, balanced by a deep love and pride that sustains her and her marriage.
Director Jay Russell first came to the attention of the American film going public with his ‘My Dog Skip’. With Ladder 49 he gets more serious and gives us a film that helps us to continue to remember and appreciate what firefighters give to the world. The use of flashbacks to tell the story is literally the life flashing before the dying man’s eyes but here this old trick is effective. Not only does Russell age the characters over the ten year span of the film but the firehouse set shows the passing of the years, a nice touch. He lets us see how Jack matures in the job from making rookie mistakes to being the consummate fireman.
Buena Vista has done an excellent job in the presentation of this film on DVD. The box notes mention that the mastering was a enhanced home theater mix, I believe that this is their answer to Paramount’s Superbit line. The video was excellent; the colors are vibrant and always vivid. The blacks are true with a full color palette. The audio is equally fantastic. All six speakers come to life and surround you in the action. There is an audio commentary track featuring the director and film editor that gives a lot of insight into the making of the film. Instead of the usual mundane featurettes there is a look at real stories of actual firemen. Add to the mix a music video from Robbie Robertson and you have a great value. After you watch this film you will never see firemen in the same way again.