Movies — Ladder 49 (PG-13)

Ladder 49 (PG-13)

- Amy Diaz

Joaquin Phoenix is Saint Firefighter in the devotional saga of a rookie who becomes a real crackerjack of a search-and-rescue guy in Ladder 49.

Jack Morrison (Phoenix) is the stocky little model of a goodhearted firefighter guy. He shows up at a burning warehouse to search for survivors in the explosion-prone upper floors of the building. He saves a man only to have the floor give way before Jack can escape as well. He lands on the cement a few floors down and begins to flash back to his first days on the job.

As a rookie, young, naive Jack fell for every trick in the book but nonetheless made lifelong friends of his firehousemates. Tommy (Morris Chestnut), Lenny (Robert Patrick), Dennis (Billy Burke), Ray (Balthazar Getty) and his commanding officer, Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), play his band of brothers, full of practical jokes and good times. He finds in them a family, one that even helps him pick up his future wife Linda (Jacinda “Yes, the one from The Real World” Barret).

As the years go by, it’s not all beer and good-working-class-third-generation-Irish good times. One of Jack’s buddies is killed and the other is horribly injured. He and his wife run into a few roadblocks, both of the normal marriage kind (she’s not one of his drinking buddies anymore and ends up alone waiting for him to come home) and of the firefighter-specific kind (his dangerous job worriers her as they start to have children). Jack himself has a few moments of panic and seems to wonder is this is still the line of work for him, yet he perseveres.

He perseveres in the present, too, where he faces any number of horrible deaths (by falling concrete, by smoke inhalation, by falling concrete that is also on fire) laying on the floor of burning warehouse. With the help of Chief Kennedy, Jack tries to work his way to a safe room inside the inferno, one where his buddies may be able to find and save him.

It’s interesting how, in the post-Sept. 11 world, police officers in movies and on TV received a roughly six-month bump up in public esteem before falling back into more complex roles. Firemen, however, have remained, at least in popular culture, beatified, beloved examples of martyr-like selflessness.

Man, that must be really annoying to firefighters.

I would imagine something like Denis Leary’s fabulous Rescue Me on FX is closer to showing the actual character of men in a difficult career than a movie that just endlessly flatters them for their inherent goodness. From a firefighter point of view, I would imagine that showing the actual lifestyle and struggles instead of just the Hallmark-ized version is more of a tribute. But then, what do I know? Nobody’s ever going to make a movie about the saintly nature of movie reviewers.

There is a scene in Ladder 49 that specifically reminded me of Leary’s firehouse dramedy. In this scene, Jack and Linda are dancing at their wedding when Jack’s firehouse buddies jump up on stage to sing and dance. Jack goes up with them and Linda walks over to a table where all the other firehouse wives are sitting. “Join the club,” one of them says.

In Rescue Me, a character at Leary’s firehouse dies and his ex-wife speaks at the funeral. She discusses their very short marriage, ended by his infidelity, and then she says that even if he hadn’t cheated she doubts they would have stayed married. He loved and talked to the men at the firehouse more. They are more important to each other than any of their wives are to them.

Not the most tactful eulogy ever—though quite funny—but it brings up what I would imagine would be a common feeling by the spouses of firefighters. The scene in Rescue Me was well done and spoke to a variety of issues—the closeness the men feel toward each other, the difficulty in keeping a marriage together in this profession. Where Linda just seems to happily accept her fate as second fiddle to the firehouse, the wives of Rescue Me clearly struggled with that role and reacted in a variety of ways, from divorce to infidelity to simply trying harder to get their husbands’ attention. Did it make the firemen look bad? No, it made them look real. Like actual people.

Ladder 49 goes the other way. It takes the sainted image of a city’s (in this case Baltimore’s) Bravest and blows it up to billboard size. In the process, you lose a sense of the people and why they made and continue to make a choice to put themselves in dangerous situations. The knee-jerk “because they’re Good People” makes dreadful goodie-goodie bores of complex people who deserve better.

Showing at: Flagship Cinemas, Cinemagic.

- Amy Diaz

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