Fire is so random, and it has such a life of its own.
— Jay Russell, Commentary, Ladder 49
I wanted this movie to feel like you were in the middle of a battle.
— Jay Russell, “The Making of Ladder 49“
“I fully subscribe to the idea that you make a film, and prep,” says director Jay Russell over the opening sequence of his Ladder 49. “But this movie because of all the technical qualities of the movie and the danger involved given the fire and the physical qualities of the movie, this is a movie where preparation is ultimately involved!”
Got that. This is a movie where you had to prepare. One of his first steps, recalls Russell for his co-commentator, editor Bud Smith, was to seek out Ron Howard, whose Backdraft is, after all, the “quintessential fire movie.” Or, put another way, as Russell does, “Everything [Howard] told me absolutely came true. You know, he told me the days that I would slow down, he told me about the technical aspects. But one thing we talked bout in particular was creating fire via the digital medium.” Turns out that you can’t make convincing fire digitally, which means you have to work with live fire, or what Russell calls “really big fire.” And that means that you’re running risks for cast, crew, and architecture every day of shooting. He sounds sincere, he sounds distraught, he sounds into it. Already, you’re liking this guy.
Russell gives major credit to the “hard effects fellow,” Larry Fioritto, who undertook to light a 20-story building in Baltimore on fire (they shot in Baltimore because the city gave permission to burn whole buildings) in the biggest “practical fire” ever shot for a film. “It was a science project, in a way,” says Russell, as they figured out how to put together an enormous fire, with explosions, “without killing anyone. We definitely weren’t going to kill anyone.” And then, mid-rhapsody about the scale of the fire, Russell interrupts himself to comment on Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into a collapsed-floor hole in this inferno: “He’s on fire,” asserts the director, proudly. “Truly on fire. That is the danger involved in making the movie, and that is miniscule compared to what real firefighters face every day.” Smith adds, “He loved it.”
In Ladder 49, Phoenix plays Jack, whose early fall through that floor leaves him incapacitated and looking back on his life for the rest of the film. The flames roar around him. Cut to his arrival at the firehouse (“The busiest and most disciplined company in the city,” that is, Baltimore) includes the usual razzing, filtered through the usual fact that “most of the guys” are Catholic. Startled by what looks like slackness of Chief Kennedy (John Travolta), Jack is soothed by the good humor exhibited by the rest of the crew, including a couple of piquant veterans: Irish guy Lenny (Robert Patrick) and black guy Tommy (Morris Chestnut). It’s not long before, a couple of flashbacks later, he’s running through the same initiation routine with the next newbie, Keith (Jay Hernandez). Russell notes that Jack’s training sequence parallels the actors’ training at the fire academy. As if it might be news, he gushes, “These guys look like they’ve done it forever, but no, none of them knew any of this before they came into the movie.”
As the guys bond and scuffle, Russell explains that he began the project with some qualms, even though his uncle is a firefighter, because of “all the emotion involved with 9/11.” And so he decided to move the script out of New York, in order to ease the “enormous responsibility of making the first film about firefighters since 9/11, even though it was written prior to 9/11.” The DVD’s making-of documentary underlines the emotional and physical difficulties of firefighting via interviews with Russell, cast members, and real life firefighters (who appear to appreciate Travolta’s training idea, to use toy trucks and figures to illustrate what each man is expected to do). Less puffy is the other featurette, “Everyday Heroes: Real Stories from Real Firefighters,” where the guys insist they don’t think of themselves as “heroes.” Complicated, quietly reflective, they don’t posture, even for the documentary cameras.
Jack is a painfully earnest kid, committed to saving lives, a desire he repeats with naïve, commendable gusto. When at last he’s ready to “break his cherry,” again the guys fortify his sense of self, applauding the very gravity that makes him simultaneously laudable and dull (this may have something to do with Phoenix’s typically low-key affect, as he has precious little energy to bounce off here). In an apparent effort to lighten him up, the film delivers Jack a girlfriend, Linda (Jacinda Barrett, whose father, Russell reveals, is a veteran firefighter), a jewelry designer whom he picks up in a supermarket and impresses with — you guessed it — his earnestness.
As their relationship pokes along perfunctorily from courtship to marriage to raising children to arguing over his risky job, Linda’s function might have been to grant Jack a life outside of work. But, given that the film persistently underlines the inextricability of firehouse and family, she’s really only the standard “feminine” force — sometimes supportive, sexy, and game (as when she beats one of Jack’s comrades in a drinking contest), sometimes “civilizing” in that venerable John Ford Western-ish way (reminding him of his responsibilities to his children, not only to the rest of the population in need of rescue), and sometimes just frustrating, as when she pouts, not appreciating the rituals of male bonding as Jack does.
Jack anchors the flashbacks, so his story — noble and bold, corny and overwrought — becomes more representative than individual. Again and again, the film cuts back to Jack, unable to get himself out of that burning building, while the guys outside work furiously to check floor plans and knock through walls, unable to determine quite where he is, only that the floor beneath him has collapsed and so, he’s dropped several stories. Then, some crisis arises, Jack wakes and sputters amid the rubble, and he remembers a series of predictably significant occasions: his wedding day (when his buddies get drunk and sing “Fire”), a fire, his discovery that Linda is pregnant (at an Irish bar, again with the guys), a fire, his daughter’s birthday, a fire. By the time Jack’s cute, courageous young son is worrying that daddy might “get hurt” like his friend, who’s just had half his face boiled off by a steam-blast (in another fire), the pattern is more than clear: each domestic event is followed by a dramatic, costly fire, suggesting that (nearly) every call leads to someone’s death or disfigurement.
While this structure underlines the danger of the job and supports the film’s most obvious theme — that work, mission, and family are intertwined for these firefighters — it also becomes repetitive and melodramatic. “I didn’t want to exaggerate it into extremes,” says Russell, and you believe him. He wanted to make clear the daily courage of the men and women he so plainly admires. As an homage to firefighters, Ladder 49 is thrilling and frightening; as a movie, it’s conventional. Sentimental and surprisingly uncomplicated, especially given the well-known difficulties of this particular career, Ladder 49 seems a disservice to the very folks it wants to extol.