November 2004
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'Sky Captain' Tomorrow and Yesterday
New Doc Exposes
What’s Wrong With the Corporation

It Takes ‘The Village’ to Disappoint an Audience
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'Ladder 49'
The Life of an American Fireman

by Jeremy Mathews

“Ladder 49”
Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Jay Russell
Written by Lewis Colick
Produced by Casey Silver
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tom Guinee, Kevin Chapman, Jay Hernandez, Kevin Daniels, and Steve Maye
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

For all its sentimentality and lust to inspire, “Ladder 49” is a surprisingly realistic look at the life of a firefighter. As the movie began, I rather anticipated a love triangle, maybe an evil or grumpy boss with whom our hero has to contend, and other forced plot contrivances that would have cheapened the sacrifices of firefighters. But instead we have a thoughtful work that explores both the joys and fears that come with the profession.

Firefighters don’t exactly need a film to glorify them. In recent years they’ve received even more respect for their willingness to, as one character puts it, run into burning buildings while others are running out. While “Ladder 49” pushes that heroic stature, it highlights the personal sacrifices that the brave people must make for their work.

The film is told as a series of chronological flashbacks after Jack (Joaquin Pheonix) falls through a collapsing floor in a large industrial building after helping another man escape the approaching flames. As his chief, Mike (John Travolta), and fellow firemen try to locate and rescue him, he remembers his entire life on the force, from his work as a rookie to the promotions, glories and doubts that followed his career.

While the world Jack enters is surely a bit sanitized from real life, the firemen (yes, they’re all men) are portrayed as a fraternal bunch. They play tricks and pranks on one another to help distract them from the stress of the job. They also enjoy putting down a few at the local pub, and Jack’s new girlfriend Linda (Jacinda Barrett) puts away some beers and cement mixers of her own to bond with colleagues.

The world is a largely closed one, as the strenuous job appears to not leave a great deal of time for outside socializing. Other than he and his more experienced friend picking up women in a grocery store while he’s single, Jack’s friends are all his coworkers and their families. Birthday parties and stress-reducing drinking celebrations are all shared amongst the force. Even Lenny (Robert Patrick), who can be obnoxious, rude and unlikable, is still part of the group.

Who wouldn't want to get married on a fire truck?  

Linda, portrayed with great presence by Barrett, becomes more comfortable with the community as she falls deeper in love with Jack and marries him. While the marriage isn’t cluttered with false melodrama, it still faces the strain that comes with the life. Especially with Jack’s later job in the rescue division, a risk of death always hangs over the family. Linda is understandably worried about her husband whenever he goes to work, but knows that he won’t be happy in any other line of work. At the same time, he worries about the psychological impact his unsure fate has on his wife and children. This is a conflict that surely can never be truly resolved in a loving family, because happiness and security are always in peril when someone works a dangerous job, which perhaps explains why some of the older men are still single.

The firefighting sequences, both in the present-day framing and the flashback, are well constructed, revealing only as much as the firefighters know. Director Jay Russell doesn’t make an effort to be flashy, but creates a sense of location and deals realistically with the situation, just like he does in the personal aspect.

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