The shadow of Sept. 11 looms large over every flickering frame of Ladder 49. Being that there hasn’t been a big-budget film based on firefighters since Ron Howard’s Backdraft, nearly 15 years ago, it’s easy to assume Ladder 49 is a crass cash-in on the 343 firefighters who perished in the destruction of the World Trade Center. While the film is undeniably exploitative, it emerges as a seductively low-key and respectful portrait of hardscrabble blue-collar heroes.
First of all, Jay Russell’s film is not directly about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Set in present-day Baltimore, most of the fires are small. Joaquin Phoenix plays a newly married firehouse rookie. His wife is backup-character cardboard, and like a stereotypical movie-wife, she gripes, moans, and pleads with Jack to consider another line of work.
John Travolta, as the firehouse commander, is competent, but it’s so hard to look at the actor’s big mug without cracking up.
The characters, charming as they may be, are not allowed to expand, and we’re deprived of the psychological insight necessary to separate this film from thematic opportunism. In that sense, the film represents Hollywood at its greediest. The topic itself is fascinating; the execution is not.
Phoenix’s sociopathic energy and charm is pervasive, as much as his character’s complexities remain shrouded. Where Ladder 49 succeeds is in its earnestness: The tears, anguish, hope and glory of the film render the audience immersed. The film is steeped in so much dumb sincerity that it can be viewed free of cynicism, as an undeniably moving working-class soap opera.
Gene Gregorits writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].