When a battle against a fire goes wrong at a critical moment, fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is sent into the middle of the chaos alone, with only thoughts of his past to keep him company until help arrives. Jack remembers his first days as a rookie at the firehouse with his firefighting brothers (including Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, and Balthazar Getty), his marriage to Linda (nicely played by Jacinda Barrett, "The Human Stain"), the children they have together, and his special bond with his captain (John Travolta), who arrives on the scene heartbroken that Jack is the one the company must save this time.
Ron Howard's 1991 epic "Backdraft" is usually considered the final word in firefighting movies, with its gushing fountains of respect for the profession and a distinct cinematic style, which violently thrust the viewer into the middle of the inferno. It was a classic of the era. Jay Russell's "Ladder 49" (IMDb listing) owes a great debt to Howard's film in its tone and its thirst to idolize the firefighting characters, but Russell's movie isn't interested in stylish cinema; it wants to bring the experience of fighting fires down to the level of the average filmgoer.
Where "Ladder 49" departs from the "Backdraft" mold is in the way it approaches its working-class characters. Russell shows, through Jack, that these are unquestionably brave men who believe in brotherhood and family, but hold them second to the thrill of fighting flames. Russell does a superb job capturing a blue-collar feel in "Ladder 49," with his portrayals of marital stress, male bonding, and neighborhood fire fighting in Boston. The audience becomes a part of the team, with Russell even going that extra mile and giving the crowd a POV shot of a fireman sliding down a brass pole! OK, so maybe that's a little much, but the rest of "Ladder" finds an emotional core to latch onto, deeply feeling the characters' plights, and investing a heartfelt interest in their fates.
Most of the reason why "Ladder" resonates so much is the cast, led by a tender, gripping performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has a tough role; he must convey 10 years of character growth in just under two hours, which has sent lesser actors screaming out of the business. Phoenix navigates these heady waters with confidence, starting off as Jack in his shy, newbie glow as a rookie fireman, and nurturing him toward adulthood, where he starts a family and searches for more responsibility at his firehouse. Phoenix plays the role with elegance, bringing Jack from mousy boy to confident man without forcing the metamorphosis. It's a tremendous performance. Also welcome is John Travolta, who, in a very unTravolta move, seems content to stand in the background for most of the film, only occasionally stepping up to deliver a speech or two (or dance, with Barrett). It's a nice supporting turn that Travolta should look into more often.
"Ladder 49" doesn't disappoint when it comes time to get the audience into the fire. Russell stages these moments well, delivering on the promise of thrills and curiosity that goes into fighting fires. However, these sequences do not define what makes "Ladder" such a special film. There's a deeper story here, which involves a healthy dose of tragedy that grabs you faster than any orange ball of flame ever could, and that's the best way to dramatize the hard work of the firefighter. It's not the hardware, but the heart, courage, and loyalty that "Ladder 49" captures so well.
Filmfodder Grade: B+