Ladder 49: Jay Russell’s Disappointing Melodrama of 9/11 Firefighters, Starring Joaquin Phoenix

The heroic firefighters of 9/11 deserve much better tribute than the solemn and tiresome one they get in Ladder 49, a formulaic picture that despite good intention and timely issue exists in a limbo, disregarding politics and history.

As written by Lewis Colick and directed by Jay Russell, this inspirational chronicle of the life of one devoted firefighter (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is an extremely old-fashioned fare, reminiscent of the recruitment movies John Wayne and other stars had made back in the 1940s.

These days, it’s impossible to see a TV series (Rescue Me) or a movie about firefighters without thinking about the true-life heroes of 9/11. Why not, then, make a more realistic movie that draws on actual lives There must be countless true stories that are far more exciting than Ladder 49 about the noble men who sacrificed their lives on the horrible day of the terrorist attacks.

To be fair, Ladder 49 doesn’t exploit the traumatic event–but neither does it serve it well. The film’s characters are just detailed stereotypes, worked up to fit the big screen and mass market. That Jack plays a positive stereotype makes it no less a stereotype. The whole movie seems to exist in a historical void. With the notable exception of state-of-the-art special effects, the story could have taken place anywhere and anytime. There’s nothing in the film to ground it in any particular reality, past or present.

Set against a busy Baltimore engine company, Ladder 49 offers a look at the unique subculture of values and practices of a typically busy urban firehouse. Though aiming to expose the “hidden human” elements behind the familiar headlines of firefighters battling nasty blazes, the movie rehashes what the public already knows from news programs, documentaries and Hollywood pictures, such as Ron Howard’s equally clich and predictable, Backdraft (1991).

The tired format of the film, which unfolds through a series of flashbacks, trivializes instead of enhancing the human tale. In his zeal to help rescue a civilian, Jack Morrison (Phoenix) is trapped deep inside a warehouse that has been transformed into a furnace of snarling flames, impenetrable black smoke, and collapsing debris. Cut off from the outside world, Jack fights for his survival, while fire chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta in a lazy performance), who was his mentor, struggles to keep communication with him and get him out alive.

As the two men make a desperate gambit, Jack reflects, moment-by-moment, year-by-year, on how he got into this predicament. Story proper begins with a turbulent meeting between Jack and Kennedy, then a Captain, followed by Jack’s enthusiastic joining of the Baltimore Fire Department. Jack then journeys back in time to his initiation into the close-knit, prank-filled, courage-fed band of brothers at the firehouse, which becomes like a second family.

Step by step, we go from the eager drive to join the brotherhood of firefighters to the harrowing shifts that keep him away from his lovely wife. We witness the conflicting emotions that grip Jack as he starts a family, the bold rescues that risk Jack’s life but ultimately offer the job’s greatest satisfaction and reward.

The story details the powerful camaraderie with fellow fighters, and the intimate bond with one firefighter, Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut) in particular. Not to neglect the female members of the audience, the film spends considerable time in describing the stability and enduring love offered by his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), who is stronger and more independent than her fragile appearance initially suggests.

Ladder 49 is meant to be a gripping account of a hero-in-the-making, how an ordinary man like Jack becomes extraordinary through his “routine” actions, how the combination of circumstances and personality pushes Jack to the limits of loyalty and courage.

Russell, who had previously directed conventional family fare (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting), tries to bring an emotional tone not usually seen in firefighting movies. However, neither he nor actors are able lift the story very far above the script’s clich. The task of doing that, naturally, falls to the special effects crew, which creates some of the most harrowing and authentic fires ever shown on screen.

The script has three or four inspired scenes that distract the audience from the clunky machinery of the plot. One of the fun scenes records the ritual according to which newcomers are forced to confess behind a curtain about their sex lives, while their comrades pretend to be priests. In due process, we get the following surefire audience pleasers: the self-sacrifice, the rescue of a little girl left behind, the big emotional scene in which the wife finally understands the meaning of her husband’s work. As anticipated, most of the thrills come from the excitement of fighting fires.

Ladder 49 is a slick, high-pressured variant of pictures Hollywood used to make fairly regularly in the l940s and 1950s. Writer Colick fails to devise snappy and enjoyable variations on this old and schematic tune. It’s the kind of film in which secondary characters endure tragedies so that the major ones can learn lessons. Everything in Ladder 49 has been carefully programmed so that there are no surprises, no discoveries, and nothing to do except to sit and applaud the efficiency of the filmmaking. We wait for the camera to find something startling to record, but, alas, every event is anticipated long before its arrival.