Reviewed by: Sheri McMurray
|Featuring:||Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Billy Burke, Jacinda Barrett, Jay Hernandez|
|Producer:||Casey Silver, Chris Salvaterra, Whitney Green|
“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.
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