Ladder 49 (review)

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Like a House on Fire

In the bright light of day, I’m as cynical as the next guy about the deification that firefighters have been subject to since 9/11, and I fully expected Ladder 49 to be a completely cornball, eye-rollingly awful embodiment of the new, inarguable status of these public servants as demigods. And maybe it is — I’m clearly the wrong person to make this kind of determination, because practically from the moment the lights went down and I entered that state of vulnerability moviegoers enter, when we’re willing to be swept away and are hoping against hope that this is the movie that will do it, I started bawling.
Yup, big, sloppy, messy bawling that signaled to me, in the tiny part of my brain that was still thinking logically at that point, that obviously I have not yet fully recovered from my mini, 9/11-induced nervous breakdown, and that god damn, if we’re gonna deify somebody, shouldn’t it be the ordinary heroic guys who show up when things are at their worst and run into burning buildings and rescue grannies and small puppies and risk everything for people they don’t even know? If these guys don’t deserve it, no one does.

Ladder 49 has nothing to do with 9/11 — if it was inspired by any actual event, it may be that huge warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts, a few years back, pre-9/11, in which six firemen were killed. Which, yes, I know, was also sort of an inspiration for Rescue Me, Denis Leary’s new series on F/X (one of the six firemen was his cousin); I haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s only half as good as F/X’s Nip/Tuck, that means it’s at least twice as good as Ladder 49 is, objectively speaking. But, you see, I’m biast here — I’m not objective. Ladder 49 might be feel-good, old-fashioned, cornball melodrama, but it’s a kind of feel-good that I guess I needed, that maybe more people than me still need. It’s two hours of Hollywoodized, lump-in-the-throat emotion, but it was still genuinely moving for me… and also genuinely cathartic. It felt, in a way that I’m not I can quite articulate, like a last public 9/11 funeral, like the signal that it’s time to move on.

For its first half, the film plays like the pilot for a TV series bound to be an enormous hit, and I don’t mean that in any bad way: Ladder 49 is all about character, rather than plot, in a way that movies, particular big Hollywood movies, tend not to be, and in a way that TV series, even really bad ones, have to be to survive. Here’s this band of really likeable guys: the firefighters of Baltimore’s Engine 33/Ladder 49. Okay, yeah, director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting, My Dog Skip) lets John Travolta (The Punisher, Swordfish), as Chief Kennedy, the commander of the house, gnaw on the scenery a bit, but Lewis Colick’s (October Sky) script manages to be respectful but not entirely reverent: like with Robert Patrick’s (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Spy Kids) Lenny Richter, who’s kind of an asshole, and an unrepentant and unredeemed one at that.

But the heart and soul of the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix’s (The Village, Brother Bear) Jack Morrison. The flashback-y structure of the story introduces us to Jack as a seasoned fireman working a big warehouse fire in which he gets into a lot of trouble, and while we wait to see how he’ll get out of it, he thinks back on the events that brought him here, from his rookie days onward. Phoenix is solid and real and grounded as Jack, with a kind of ordinary-guy, working-class integrity that makes you love him. He’s pretty much impossibly perfect, actually, now that I think on it — his great “flaws” are a certain shyness, as demonstrated by his aw-shucks reticence around Linda (Jacinda Barrett: The Human Stain), who will become his wife, and a dedication to helping people that borders on the saintly.

I gotta say, though, that it didn’t feel that way while I actually watching the movie. Phoenix makes Jack seem like a regular, decent guy, and if the stuff of his life is exactly what you’d expect of a nice working-class Catholic boy — parades, funerals, weddings, baptisms, midnight mass on Christmas Eve, all of it scored by melodramatically mournful Irish tin whistles — well, then, the normality of it is a sharper contrast with the disorientation and darkness inside a raging fire, which Russell very effectively shows us in one gripping scene.

Look, there’s no question that Ladder 49 is nothing but a celebration of what these crazy bastards do, running into burning buildings when even the rats are smart enough to run out — there isn’t a critical bone in its cinematic body. I wanted to be snarky about it, and I just couldn’t. I sobbed. A lot. And I don’t care who knows it.

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