We’re in the midst of a minor firefighter boom. The terrorist attacks three years reminded sincere artists and hacks alike that, in a world where few legitimate heroes remain, where police and soldiers are periodically revealed to have beaten or even raped incarcerated suspects, there is still one group of people who are almost unquestionably noble: the ones who walk into burning buildings and walk out carrying strangers over their shoulders. So, shortly after Sept. 11, we got the play The Guys and then a movie version, and various documentary tributes to the bravery of firefighters, and recently the new series “Rescue Me” began running on the FX network. This is not in itself a bad thing. Firefighters deserve our respect and admiration, and, as workplaces go, burning buildings are pretty high in drama and visual excitement. The issue in this, as in any raw material for film or television, is how it’s used. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible to both celebrate and exploit a subject simultaneously, to demean a figure with insulting storylines and cheap manipulation while maintaining a poker-faced insistence that the goal is simply to honor him. Which brings us to Ladder 49.
The film tells the story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), a brave, decent, but not-too-bright fellow who joins the Baltimore, Md., fire department, meets a girl, marries her, has some kids, and saves some lives, while watching various of his buddies grievously injured or killed in the line of duty. The film is structured so that we get all these episodes in flashback, as Jack has been trapped in a burning building, badly hurt, awaiting rescue. His life passes before his eyes, as it were, a cliched device but one that’s appropriate to the production’s general lack of originality. Jack, his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett, best known as the pretty but vapid Australian girl from “The Real World: London;” surprisingly she can act), his boss, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), and all his pals at the firehouse are stock figures, but the performances inject some life into them. Phoenix was a rather willowy adolescent when he first came to my attention nine years ago in To Die For, but he’s 30 now, and he’s filled out into the sort of bulk that can add gravitas to his performances. He feels just right for Jack and allows himself to come off just a little bit slow, as goodhearted working-class heroes in shallowly conceived films always must. Travolta, too, handles his part well, though he doesn’t look terribly Irish to me. He’s less blustery here than he’s been in other recent performances, and he takes to the surrogate father role like a fish to water.
Of course, Jack might not need a surrogate father quite so badly if he were given any family of his own. When we see him show up for his first morning at the firehouse, it’s as though he’d just been born. There’s never a mention of him having any existence before that day and no family or pre-existing friends are introduced. He and Linda are Catholic, and they have a huge church wedding, but neither of them appear to have any family whatever. The film doesn’t bother to convince us that its world exists beyond the edges of the frame; no characters are shown who do not serve the workings of the plot.
And what workings they are. Phoenix and his friends at the firehouse are made out to be unfailingly likable; the firehouse is a Never Never Land for charming overgrown adolescents who tease and mock each other but never experience any serious tensions or disagreements. They win us over so that we can be shocked and saddened when something terrible inevitably happens to them. The film jerks tears at regular intervals; I’m not sure which is more pornographic, the loving depiction of buildings in flames or the way the film hovers over its characters’ grief when another noble soul is sacrificed to his sacred duty. We go to films like this knowing we’ll be manipulated, asking for it, but a little subtlety never queered the game. The filmmakers (writer Lewis Colick and director Jay Russell) will have no truck with it, though; they know they can play our emotions like a violin and they revel in it.
Russell and his cinematographer James L. Carter do have some visual ingenuity, and the action sequences are beautifully shot. They achieve even a kinesthetic response at times; when Phoenix braces to kick through a plate-glass window, I felt the tendons in my legs tightening. I would probably be troubled by the film less if it weren’t so effective; filmmakers who have the talent to drive audience responses this well ought to be able to find more depth in their material. No attempt to do so is apparent, though, and by the 90-minute mark, I was just exhausted and ready for it to be over. It wasn’t; the film is nearly two hours long, and the later sequences are entirely too drawn out. Some judicious cutting would have helped, though nothing could save the ending, which is intended to make us leave the theater feeling saddened but ennobled by the brave sacrifices of firefighters everywhere. For me, those emotions were totally overwhelmed by the sense of having been cheapened by the gross manipulation. Firefighters will probably love Ladder 49; it couldn’t portray them in a more favorable light. Still, I think the courage and generosity of their work deserves a higher tribute than this simpering, tear-jerking tackiness.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Ladder 49 / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()