It was thirteen years ago that Ron Howard's ode to firefighters hit theaters with 1991's Backdraft. This was before Howard went on to direct such popular fare as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. This was before Kurt Russell figured that Captain Ron might a good idea, and most importantly, this was before September 11, 2001.
To say that our impression of firefighters changed that day sounds, well, awkward. Firefighters have always been held in high regard. They run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out. They put their lives on the line to save others. It is a courage that most of us would like to think we have, but few of us are ever put into a position to test.
On September 11, we watched in awe as the buildings collapsed and 340 firefighters were taken from us prematurely. Although the loss of lives that day included thousands of innocents, we warmed to our heroes and it brought their efforts and incredible bravado back to our attention. Immediately after the tragic events, it was not uncommon to see people wave or salute firefighters in the most remote regions of our country. On CNN we began to hear stories of the personal lives of these men. Their support. Their sacrifices.
It is not surprising therefore that our newly energized interest was translated into big screen emotional powerhouses. In 2002, Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver played a firefighter and a writer to prepare eulogies for those fallen in the attacks in The Guys. Now, in 2004, red-hot Joaquin Pheonix and John Travolta have teamed up to bring us the highly effective Ladder 49.
Ladder 49 starts with a fire in a large Baltimore factory where multiple firemen have charged to look for survivors and extinguish the posing threat.
Lead by seasoned veteran Jack Morrison (Pheonix), the firemen are able to rescue a helpless employee before the floor gives way trapping Morrison within the building inferno. As Jack lays there helpless awaiting the rescue from his peers, we are sent back in time via the Hollywood standard flashback to understand what brought Jack to his present peril. We see Jack as he enters the fire hall for the first time and meets Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) who takes the new probie under his wing and over the years develops a bond that includes being there when Jack gets married, has kids and steps into the shoes of a search and rescue firefighter who perishes when a roof gives way during a routine house fire. We learn how the firemen bond, how they drink together rather heavily and regularly and how when they lose one of their own, the emotional impact on them and their families
Don't get me wrong, all the above drama plays out while buildings burn, people are rescued from skyscrapers and people are saved from what would be sheer death if not for the charging brave souls of the local Fire Department. There is enough action to keep the younger audiences looking for the quick rush occupied while enough firemen running around in tight t-shirts to keep the women equally transfixed.
But it is the story that sets this film apart from any other firefighting film in memory. We get a good glimpse into the lives of the men and portrait of a young man learning the ropes and growing within the culture and environment that can be sometimes loose and playful only to become serious and deadly at the sound of a bell. Director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) packs an emotional punch that doesn't try and suck it out of the audience with an unexpected end. Instead, we see Jack being trapped in the opening sequence and we can pretty much see the writing on the wall before the tragic events play out before our eyes.
For all the focus played to the rising star Pheonix, it is the supporting cast that really stands out within the confines of the 105 minute running time. Travolta seems comfortable in playing a supporting role and is effective and powerful in his portrayal as the Captain of an efficiently run firehouse. Also standing above the average fare is Jacinda Barrett who plays Jacks wife. Yet another beautiful Australian actress, Barrett has the largest load in the film as the anchor that questions why her husband and father of her children would risk his lives for others ignoring his own well being. She both shows anxiety and support in her understanding of his passion and it is her strength that gives the film its heart.
To compare Ladder 49 to Backdraft would be unfair. Backdraft did little to bolster our impression of the firefighting community while Ladder 49 shows them for what they deserve to be recognized as heroes who at the sound of an alarm will put themselves in harms way to help others.