October 22, 2005
Jay Russell, ,
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tim Guinee, Kevin Chapman, Jay Hernandez, Kevin Daniels, ,
The fact that Ladder 49 (2004) celebrates firefighters is admirable in and of itself but it unfortunately portrays them in such a simplistic way that Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991) seems like the epitome of moral complexity by comparison. You know you’re in trouble when one of the film’s earliest (and repeated) lines is that old chestnut, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Jack Morrison (Phoenix) is an excellent firefighter caught in an immense fire. He becomes trapped in a burning 20-story building that is rapidly disintegrating around him. The film proceeds to flashback to when he was a rookie just starting out at Engine 33, one of the busiest firehouses in the city. Initially, he gets all the crap jobs that newbies get: cleaning the bathroom and doing menial tasks for the senior firefighters. We see how Jack met his wife (Barrett), how they fell in love and got married.
Like Backdraft, the firefighting sequences are very impressively staged, shot with shaky, hand-held cameras that convey the visceral, claustrophobic effect of being in a burning building. And then it proceeds to lay on the symbolism nice and thick. For example, a shot of Jack’s baby being baptized, water running down his head segues to a shot of Jack in the present, lying in wreckage with water running down his face exactly the same way.
Joaquin Phoenix is good as the audience surrogate. He is our window into the lives of these firefighters. The actor is much better than the material he has to work with. He has a natural empathy that makes us sympathetic to his plight.
Ladder 49 tries to explain what motivates these guys to run into burning buildings and save lives but does so in a simple way characteristic of a big budget Hollywood movie that wants to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Compared to the moral complexity that is explored so well in the TV show, Rescue Me, Ladder 49 resorts to plugging in the usual plot points. It does capture the fraternal nature of life in a firehouse: the practical jokes, the jargon and so on. It all contributes to a strong bond between these guys, a trust that enables them to risk their lives for each other.
The film has a tendency to put firefighters on pedestals as unimpeachable champions. Since 9/11 people are afraid to show these guys in a negative light or with any kind of flaws—Rescue Me being the very notable exception. Ladder 49 does firefighters even more of a disservice by portraying them as supermen without faults. Even Backdraft had sibling rivalry and corruption within the department to spice things up. Ladder 49 is a snapshot of a nice guy’s life. There is nothing wrong with this, just nothing terribly original or interesting.
“The Making of Ladder 49” is broken down into three featurettes that can be viewed separately or altogether. The crew talks about how they wanted to realistically praise firefighters. The cast talk about their characters and how Joaquin Phoenix had to overcome his fear of heights. All of the actors spent two weeks training at the Academy for their roles. There’s even footage of the actors being put through the paces. Thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t resort to CGI fire because it looked fake and used the real thing—albeit in controlled settings.
“Everyday Heroes” examine real firefighters at Engine Company 5. Several of them are interviewed and talk about why they do it. These guys don’t do it for the money but because it is a calling and they get to help people on a daily basis.
There are also five deleted scenes that show how the firefighters live together. Also included is a scene where Engine 33 gets a new, by-the-book captain (Guinee) and a brief bit that addresses the events of 9/11.
The film’s director Jay Russell and the editor Bud Smith contribute an audio commentary. Russell says that he consulted Ron Howard about the problems and technical aspects of making a movie about fighting fires. They did CGI tests with fake fire but it never looked right. The two men talk at length about the technical details: how they created the fires in the movie and how the actors trained for their roles. This is a modestly informative track.
Finally, there is a music video for the song, “Shine Your Light on Me” by Robbie Robertson that plays over the end credits. It is a light FM song from the former The Band member that intercuts footage from the movie with footage of one of the film’s stars, Jacinda Barrett, with Robertson.