Courage Over Fire

I thought an ideal super hero for firemen would be Aquaman. But a quick research shows that Aquaman can only get out of water for a limited period. He’s more like a swimmer’s hero. Maybe firemen don’t need super heroes. Besides, they are better heroes because they’re real. They might not be depicted in some comic book, but they do have “Ladder 49” which pays tribute to their dangerous line of work. In movies, among professions that require life sacrifices, we’ve seen crooked cops and sadistic soldiers. Firemen have yet to be tainted.

In the movie’s intensely hot intro, Baltimore Fire Department is up against a towering inferno. On the 12th floor of the warehouse, people are being cornered by deadly and menacing fire. Fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who is part of search and rescue, finds a survivor on the floor and lowers him to safety with rope. Just then, the floor beneath him gives way and he drops several stories. The man survives the fall, but with the building collapsing, he needs to be retrieved immediately. Through radio, he keeps in contact with his captain (John Travolta), reporting his location and the gravity of the situation.

“Ladder 49” has a pretty simple story. Its only deviation from linear storytelling is having a series of flashbacks. As Jack awaits rescue, he’s recalling his career that led him to that point of danger. On his rookie year, he’s a valuable target of practical jokes but it’s a small price to pay for a rewarding brotherhood. In addition to the testosterone company, we also meet Jack’s pretty wife Linda (Jacinda Barett), who justifiably worries about him.

The biggest reason to see this movie is Joaquin Phoenix, who humanizes a part that seems inhuman because Jack neither doubts nor regrets his profession. What Phoenix brings to the role is an essence of vulnerability. We follow him, not because the story told us to. We gravitate towards his desire and his struggle to do his best. Along side Phoenix is John Travolta, who’s effective as Jack’s source of paternal guidance. The performance is low key but Travolta is adept in evoking poignancy. I can’t say much about the rest of the firemen. Some fill certain stereotypes but they all pretty much behave the same way.

The weakness in “Ladder 49” is its predictability. Since Jack is such an ideal character, he goes through the ideal life. He gets married and have kids. He bonds with his fellow firemen and witness, at least, one of them extinguished by fire. I wish the story tilted more in educating us about the job, although the movie has enough scenes demonstrating their work. These depictions of perilous incidents are well edited and directed. And there is suspense whether Jack will survive in the end. If he doesn’t, how will it affect those he left behind? If he does, how will it change his life? All I know is that the movie has its heart in the right place. It has the utmost respect for these very heroic men. It’s odd that most of us don’t mean to get “fired” but there are brave men who choose to lose their job that way… literally.

Grade: B+