Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Ladder 49

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language

Reviewed by: Sheri McMurray
CONTRIBUTOR

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults Teens
Genre:
Drama
Length:
1 hr. 55 min.
Year of Release:
2004
USA Release:
______
Featuring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Billy Burke, Jay Hernandez
Director: Jay Russell
Producer: Casey Silver, Chris Salvaterra, Whitney Green
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures

“A bond forged by fire is never broken.”

In the wake and still painful aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01 comes “Ladder 49”—an extremely realistic depiction of a fireman’s dedication to saving lives at great peril to himself. “Ladder 49” is a griping and very fitting example of the force that saved so many and gave their lives on that stunning autumn morning. There have been 9/11 accounts on film about people involved and those in law enforcement, but this is the first film to set the stage for the bravery and dedication of fire fighters. I was deeply moved and greatly impressed by “Ladder 49.”

As the story begins the audience is immediately taken into the realm of danger and competence of the fire fighter’s world. Sirens pierce the air and flames leap at a frantic pace. One can almost feel the heat as these men battle an out of control factory fire in a 16 story building. Four firemen are sent into this burning inferno to search for and rescue overcome victims. Jack Morrison is one of these brave men (Joaquin Phoenix in a tense, very believable role).

After Jack successfully lowers an injured man out a 12th story window to the waiting arms of his fellow fire fighters, the grain silos within the building explode, caving in the floor beneath Jack’s feet, sending him falling two floors below. He is injured, semi-conscious as he lies upon the rubble, he thoughts drift back over his life—back to his beginnings as a young rookie up to the present. Through flashbacks we are taken along, viewing the cycle of the events in his life that makes him the dedicated man he is today, as his fellow fire fighters hustle to save his life.

Copyright, Touchstone Pictures

We are introduced to the men who will become his “family.” Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut), Don Miller (Kevin Daniels), Lenny Richter (Robert Patrick, remembered from “The Terminator II”), Dennis Gauquin (Billy Burke), and Ray Gauquin (Balthazar Getty). His closest friend, more like a father, is Chief Mike Kennedy (a commanding and moving performance by John Travolta). Mike is a Fire Chief by no accident. He stems from a long line of dedicated fire fighters. Although it is clear he takes his job seriously, at the same time Chief Kennedy has the sense of humor and respect needed to command his “brothers.”

After practical jokes and a sort of initiation, we go with Jack on his first fire fighting call. It is very exciting and done so well you will feel like you are right on the fire truck with these fearless men. Jack is trained, but perhaps not prepared for the real thing as he forgets his fire helmet and nearly gets tangled up in the water hose. He emerges victorious even so and is applauded by his comrades after he successfully squelches his first fire.

We travel further in time and relive his first meeting with his future wife Linda (a beautiful and very believable performance by Jacinda Barrett) in a grocery store. On one of their first dates Linda asks Jack the general questions about family and favorite things, the usual subjects of which first dates like to know. It is when she inquires about his job of fire fighting that Jack comes alive with enthusiasm expounding on his genuine passion for his chosen profession. Jack conveys his love for Linda after she asks about the silver ring he is wearing. He explains it is known as a Claddagh and in his Irish heritage if the person it belongs to wears it “pointing down it means you are free, but if pointing up towards your heart, it means you belong to someone.” Jack turns it pointing up and we know he means commitment. Ultimately, they have a traditional Irish Catholic wedding with his jubilant friends all attending. After the wedding, Jack and Linda ride truck #33 with ladder #49 down the streets of Baltimore instead of a Limo to further demonstrate the close knit ties between fire fighter and family.

The film wanders in and out of present time with the urgency of the current life threatening situation and the not so distant past filled with events that were milestones in Jack’s life. As the years role by we are invited into Jack’s heart. The birth of his children, the heartache at the loss of his best friend to the fire, his wife’s concern for his safety, and the day Jack courageously saved the life of a little girl and is presented with The Medal of Honor.

I am hesitant to give away the ending to this movie as to taking away from it’s impact. I am sure before too long everyone will be aware of it’s conclusion, but for now I leave it to you to go and see this film.

“Ladder 49” is not about a fireman whose life passes before his eyes, but about a man who saved a life and put himself in danger, and how he got to this pivotal place in his life. It is all about what his life and family mean to him. Because it is attentive to these human elements, “Ladder 49” draws from the action scenes instead of depending on them to propel the film forward. The script allows the audience to bond with (and get to know personally) Jack’s desires and loyalties to family and his relationships with Chief Kennedy as well as his fire fighting brothers. The characters are given dimension which is developed with skill and emotion. Before the end of the movie you may feel as though you know each character as well as Jack does.

The characters and their actions are quite believable, especially the practical jokes and the way firefighters work and live together—along with much careful attention to detail. The actors went trained at the Baltimore Fire Academy, and their hard work shows. The portrayal of the family and the stresses and fears that firemen must deal with on a daily basis are powerful mirrors of the stresses and rewards of a fire fighter’s real life. “Ladder 49” seemed less like a feature film and more like a documentary. I feel that the writers, director, production and most of all the actors got it right.

The PG-13 rating (for intense fire and rescue situations and language) is a bit misleading, so I give a word of caution to parents of any child younger than 17 who goes to see this film. There are very overwhelming fire/rescue scenes, realistic explosions relevant to the film, but potentially traumatic to young viewers. Adult language sprinkled liberally with profanities such as 3 “sh**,” 2 “da**,” 2 each “a** “and “bad-a**” and “a**hole,” along with at least one “God da**.” The Lord’s name was taken in vain at least twice, and there were references to breaking a cherry. As a joke, one character impersonates a Catholic priest and pretends to take another character’s “confession,” and while doing so asks if he thinks it’s funny “to fornicate with loose women.” This constitutes male bonding humor, but is not appropriate for younger children. There is rampant drinking in bars, characters getting drunk, and smoking. There is one scene where the young couple in love are shown in bed and are not married yet. Although there are no completely nude scenes, it is understood these characters have no clothes on. There also is a scene where there is a reference to a character being drunk and on a dare, getting nude in front of perfect strangers in a bar, although not shown on camera. After Linda announces to everyone in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day that she is pregnant, it is treated as natural that there be “No more drinks for Linda. Doubles for Jack!”

All this “realism” aside, this movie had lots of positive qualities, although some or most of the character’s private lives had questionable morality at times even though they were depicted as strong practicing Catholics. There is the obvious unyielding commitments to family, true friendship, heroism, bravery, and laying down one’s life for another person, even if that person is a stranger. Jack is always there for his family and for his brother fire fighters. He is compassionate and giving. When Jack’s friend, Tommy, is burned terribly by an exploding pipe during a rescue and is concerned that his kids won’t love him anymore, Jack reassures him it’s not the way he looks that secures his children’s love for him, but the fact he is their dad. During this same traumatic time Jack’s son is scared and concerned about Tommy’s condition. Knowing that his son is afraid of the pain Uncle Tommy is suffering and the fear of the way he will look from the burns to his face, Jack carefully explains that firemen are trained not to get hurt, but sometimes accidents happen. He urges his son to tell his friends that Uncle Tommy got hurt while bravely saving lives. It is reinforced that “courage and bravery is what makes a fire fighter run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.”

This film reminds us of life’s fragility and also of it’s strengths. We find heros in ordinary people and through tragedy hearts are opened. It spurs us to appreciate our blessings and to help us keep our eyes fixed on God and the sacrifice that is possible when we all work together in one spirit. I cannot help but remember verse 27 of 2 Samuel chapter one: “How are the mighty fallen!” I see “Ladder 49” as a tribute to those brave and amazing men and women fire fighters who ran into danger and willingly gave their lives saving others on 9-11-01. It is a stunning example of how God works within the lives of all for the greatest good.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Mild

Viewer Comments
Positive—After seeing this movie, my heartfelt thanks goes out to every firefighter and their families. This movie was very intense and gripping. There was 2 times that God’s name was used in vain, and a lot of drinking and bar scenes. The story showed true love between these “brothers” in the fire department. They risked all to save and protect strangers and each other. The Bible says “Greater love is this, that a man lay down his life for a brother”
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4½]
—Lori, age 40
Negative—Very realistic. My husband is a firefighter so he and I and our son went to watch it together. The trailers and advertisements for this film lead you to believe that this is a funny film. However, the film hit way too close to home for our family. It took ten minutes to calm our son down (he was crying hysterically) after the show. I stopped to vomit on the way home twice! It was very well written and the actors portrayed their parts excellently, but I would not recommend it for firefighters’ families.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Brenda, age 30
Positive—This movie will lure you in and grab your heart. There’s plenty of suspense, sadness and humor ebbing and flowing throughout. The thing that most appealed to me was the way the movie flipped from beginning to end. It starts out with pure action and suspense with no real emotional edge. However, as the story unfolds you gradually get pulled into the very realistic life of a very humble and basically contented young man. He struggles with the temptations that all of us face, and he succumbs to a couple in the movie. This is mainly confined to one scene that involves a binge-drinking party with his buds. They all get quite smashed, and his new girl tries to impress them with her drinking skills. This of course leads to implied drunken pre-marital sex at his place later that night (I think it’s their 2nd date). Although this scene was very brief and mild relative to most movies today, it offended me as a believer in Christ, because I now understand that my life is a consecration to the Lord, and I want to obey Him in my heart. This revealed to me that these characters were not being portrayed as true believers.

On the positive side, the movie sends a very strong message about love between family, friends, and even strangers in need. Joe is torn between his inherent (and rare) heart’s desire to save people at the brink of death, and his deep love for his family and friends. As he endures some very painful circumstances, he becomes conflicted with what matters most in life. In the end, the message seems to be that death is inevitable, and love is what matters most. This movie makes believers think about whether we are really living our lives for Christ, and it helps non-believers understand that death is very fleeting, and your legacy is based on the love that you showed. This is a direct reflection on the cross, and provides an excellent lead-in for sharing the gospel.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4]
—Ken E., age 43
Positive—No man’s love is greater than to give his life for another. The movie shows love for others. The brotherhood the fireman have is very real. My husband and Stepson are firemen. They show this bond daily. I wonder if these men were believers. I know my men are and for that I am proud of them. I Do not fear for them while they are working. That is the grace of the Lord. Awesome Movie. See it. Thank you John T. for making it.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Elizabeth Ward, age 39
NeutralAdultery, or for single men and women, fornication, is for some reason always O.K. in movies if two people love each other, and, sad to say, in life as well. This movie is no exception. The story is about a young firefighter’s life, and how a firefighter struggles with the job of saving lives, while risking his own, and how that effects his family. It does a really good job of this. This is not a film for children. Even though they do a really good job of not grossing us out, it can really scare little ones. Even though it is not filmed as “pretty” (Fire can be pretty you know.) as Backdraft, it has a few scenes that make you go, wow. This is a sad movie. It does not point people to God at the end, but rather to the power of people, and the will to carry on. My brother is a firefighter, and I believe that this movie portrays them as it should. Men willing to risk their lives for others, again, and again, day in and day out. It really shows the hardships placed on families, and the strength it takes to carry on.
My Ratings: [Average/2]
—Tim Stromer, age 38
Positive—First, we need to realize we are living in a real world where most do not hold the values of Christianity that we do. This being considered, “Ladder 49” is realistic. It is what we see everyday in the real world. We have to remember that Christ accepted US as we were. We were not expected to clean up before we accepted him. Sure, there is profanity and other things objectionable by Christians, but this should help us to understand those in these settings better.

Ladder 49 is a true representation of life in general, and it should remind us all of the price several hundred New York firefighters paid on 9/11/01 when they rushed into a building everyone else was rushing out of. I pray that this helps us each to reach out to those around us and to let them know how much Jesus really loves them
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Ken Deemer, age 58
Neutral—I am not overly fond of movies with flashbacks, and this is no exception. It’s too long, too tedious, and deserves to be on television instead of at the theaters. I felt like my emotions were trying to be manipulated throughout the entire film. I was if the director(s?) was saying “Okay, now you should laugh. Now you should cry. Now you should gasp.” There was quite a bit offensive material in it as well. I feel sorry for REAL firefighters who get hurt and killed in REAL fires. I cannot feel any emotions for these fake characters and their on-screen problems.
My Ratings: [Average/2½ ]
—Dana, age 19
Negative—There was a lot of inappropriate language and some sexual scenes. It was good as far as the desire to help others and being selfless.
My Ratings: [4]
—Talitha Mayfield, age 21

Comments from young people
Positive—This film was absolutely incredible. By far one of the most powerful films I have seen in a LONG time. It really shows how the firefighting profession can be. There are the dull times around the firehouse, and then there are the times where they are risking their lives. Anyway this movie was absolutely incredible and I definitely recommend it to anyone in the mood to be moved. As far as the Christian viewpoint of the movie is concerned, there was some profanity, and a scene where it is implied that Joaquin Phoenix and the woman (don’t know her name) had sex, and the violence was there, but could have been worse. All in all an exteremely powerful film that I think should be seen by everyone to pay respect to those who risk their lives everyday. Fantastic movie.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Ray Langridge, age 16
Positive—I thought this was a great movie in almost every aspect. It shows the lives of the people helping us every day by putting themselves into the most dangerous situations. I now appreciate what they do so much more. There is an unfortunate implication of pre-marital intercourse, but except for that it was very good. The main character shows selflessness, courage, and criticizes a man for cheating on his wife. Overall, I thought it was an excellent production and would encourage you to see it. I wouldn’t take littler kids or those easily frightened or emotional, because it’s a little intense.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Andrew, age 14
Positive—This was an AWESOME movie!!! Over the summer I saw preview for it and I wanted to see it since then. I saw it twice in theatres and I can’t wait till it goes out on DVD. I don’t cry in movies and I almost cried in this one at the end. I would recommend it to teens and adults. *Guys bring your girls, girls bring your tissues*
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Kristen Lemna, age 15
Positive—This was a great movie. It is very intense at some points in the movie. I recommend it to all who are at least 12 years old. This was an excellent movie!
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Lauren, age 12
Positive—I really enjoyed this film. I just saw it with some friends and it was one of the most touching movies I’ve seen in a long time. It wasn’t just one of those movies that you know are trying to sell out and trying to get the big bucks. It was well-written and well-done. While there was some profanity it wasn’t horrible and overall there wasn’t anything out of place or put in the movie just to sell it (like a lot of sex scenes are.) I think it was an incredible movie.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Taylor, age 14
Negative—I really enjoy watching firemen movies, people have to understand that these kind of movies aren’t going to be happy. This had a good plot and started out very well, later on in the movie I started losing interest. I don’t want to give away the ending to anybody who are reading this review but the way they made the ending look like was too dramatic. There isn’t much language, theres at least 1 “f” word, “3” s words and they use the “h” a couple times. I don’t recommend this movie; if you want a good firemen movie, watch “Backdraft.”
My Ratings: [Average/2]
—Benjamin, age 14
Movie Critics
…The first eight minutes… are a slick, taut exercise in adventure storytelling… “Ladder 49” will stoke the embers on all of our firefighter daydreams…
—Michael Booth, Denver Post
…technically correct …incredibly realistic …positive images of Christianity…
—Annabelle Robertson, Crosswalk
…manipulative and predictable and over-romanticized… touches us deeply and leaves us feeling grateful to strangers who do the dirtiest, hardest, most stressful work in the world…
—Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press
…plays like a pilot for a Fox drama …action sequences consistently raise those hard-to-impress hairs on the back of your neck…
—Steve Schneider, Orlando Weekly