It was inevitable that a film about firefighters was going to be
made after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the filmmakers behind
“Ladder 49,” screenwriter Lewis Colick and director Jay
Russell, are up to the challenge. They skillfully depict a group of
America’s most overlooked public servants as universally
noble and courageous outside of the context of the Sept. 11
attacks, though nonetheless leaving remnants of that unforgettable
day in the minds of the viewer. They create a film that reconciles
the heroism of selflessly running into a flaming edifice with the
fear and anxiety that must inevitbly accompany these feats of

“Ladder 49” begins with firefighter Jack Morrison
(Joaquin Phoenix) helplessly trapped inside a horrific inferno that
had been a 20-story office building. After sacrificing himself to
rescue a man, the floor falls out from under him. With Jack
surronded by flames, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), his onetime
captain and now assistant fire chief, quickly shows up to
personally head the rescue effort. While lying in the bowels of
this monstrous hell-hole, Jack’s career flashes before his
eyes and viewers are taken on a journey throughout his life since
he first joined the company. As he drifts in and out of
consciousness, his life unfolds in chronological order and the
audience is transported to his initiation into the ranks of Ladder
49 and his formative days as a firefighter.

From the first day as a rookie assigned to the firehouse as a
“pipeman” (the guy who holds the hose); he gets the
welcome hazing from the guys. The camaraderie of the house of men
known as Ladder 49 is edgy and affectionate. They are an earthy
group of men, who have a great time drinking and joking but are
professional and dedicated to serving the public. The crew consists
of the usual stereotypes: easy-going Tommy (Morris Chestnut),
loudmouth Lenny (Robert Patrick) and ladies’ man Dennis
(Billy Burke).

“Ladder 49” does a particularly fine job portraying
the domestic conflict — having a family while simultaneously
coping with the possibility of going to work and never making it
back home to see your wife and kids — inherent in the life of
a firefighter. There is a moment in the film during Jack’s
flashback when he has to explain the real dangers of being a
firefighter to his 7-year-old son. With second degree burns on both
bandaged hands Jack sits on his son’s bed, staring in his
face and tells him, “It’s worth the risk to save
people.” This scene offered a realistic depiction of the
struggles beyond the glory. His pregnant wife sees him on
television dangling from a building engulfed in flames while
rescuing a man and she is afraid that one day he won’t make
it home for the children. These moments imbue “Ladder
49” with a somber tone that is often missing in big Hollywood

The tight-knit family of “Ladder 49,” encountering
joy, hurt, glory and loss, provide a wonderful vehicle for
exploring the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. “Ladder
49” succeeds by providing an honest assessment of the
conflicts and tradeoffs that these brave citizens face every day on
the job and at home.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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