Coming as it did in the wake of 9/11, "Ladder 49" might seem shamelessly exploitive. But director Jay Russell explains in the commentary and "making of" feature (as he did during a DVD Town interview) that the script was written long before that tragic day, and before a groundswell of sympathy and respect for rescue workers inspired people all over the country to buy and wear FDNY hats. In fact, the original script was set in New York, but Russell argued that they needed to find a new location in order to tone down any associations with 9/11.
It's slick and it honors firefighters as obviously as the first wave of WWII films paid tribute to America's fighting men and women. "Ladder 49" also unabashedly flirts with sentimentality, as did the director's previous films, "My Dog Skip" and "Tuck Everlasting." But like firemen themselves and the cast and crew who trained at the Baltimore City Fire Training Academy in order to make this film, "Ladder 49" keeps plugging away with a stubborn sense of honesty and purpose that it trusts will win you over by the movie's end.
It did me—though I was resistant.
As with "Backdraft" (1991), there are some spectacular recreations of out-of-control fires, and there are competitive brothers and rookies vs. veterans. But that's where the similarities end. Ron Howard's film had some dramatic-but-stagey moments and nudity that pushed it into an "R" rating, while Russell went the more realistic PG-13 route, hoping, no doubt, that a wider audience might be moved and inspired by the heroes in all our communities. He also chose to tell the story using extended flashbacks—or "parallel stories," as he prefers to call them—that chronicle the ten-year rookie-to-present life of one firefighter. Howard went for classic drama and a broader canvas; Russell opted for melodrama and a more predictable life-flashing-before-your-eyes tale. But it works.
Joaquin Phoenix offers a credible performance as Jack Morrison, who at the outset of the film is shown inside a gigantic grain elevator fire alongside the harbor with the men from Ladder 49 as they search inside for homeless people and others that might have been trapped inside the building. He finds and rescues one, but then is suddenly separated from the others when a wall of flames destroys the walkway to safety. Things go from bad to worse when the floor gives way and he finds himself in the middle of flames and falling debris. From that point, the narrative alternates between real-time and backstory—between his former captain's attempts to choreograph Morrison's rescue and Morrison's story as a firefighter. The latter begins from the first moment he walks into the office of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) as a rookie and learns that he's going to be the subject of prank after prank until a fresher face comes along. Travolta isn't nearly as wooden as he's been in films as of late, and both men give performances that allow viewers to believe that they're friends. One of the film's strengths is that it shows how tight firefighters are at work and off-duty, and how they use jokes and alcohol to take the edge off of each day's trauma.
The sense of camaraderie was no doubt helped by the fact that all the actors spent two weeks training at the academy, while many of them continued to go on "ride-alongs" to real fires in full uniform well after their training period. One of the actors, Tim Guinee, was even honored by the City of Baltimore for his heroism. Though the flashback sequences are pretty standard, there's still so humanly compelling that you want more of them rather than the predictable this-isn't-going-well rescue attempt. It's during the off-duty moments that you learn the most about what the lives of firefighters are really like. To Russell's credit, he includes minor friction between an older jerk firefighter (Robert Patrick) and the others, which adds a nice balance to the one-big-happy-firefighting family that plays games during downtime at the station, drinks together at the same bar every night, and picnics together with their spouses and children.
Russell says that he knew he found the right woman to play Morrison's love-interest when he auditioned Jacinda Barrett and learned that she was the daughter of a 30-year veteran firefighter—and she's able to reach back into her own past in order to dramatize a convincing arc of character that goes from initial fascination (and seeing the glamour of firefighting) through anxiety and finally, having to attend the funerals of firemen and visit them in hospitals, an acceptance that disaster could be waiting around each corner.
There are two versions, so pay attention to the packaging. The full screen version offers the standard 1.33:1 ratio pan and scan, while the anamorphic widescreen version features a 1.85:1 aspect that's "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. Especially when the cameras pull back to catch the full height and breadth of that waterfront fire, with jets of water rising eight stories in the night to meet a dramatic crown of flames, you're struck by how sharp and clear the picture is—with nary a halo. And with fire, that's saying something. Excellent picture quality.
The THX-Certified sound offers English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with "Enhanced Home Theater Mix" and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The making-of feature is excellent, with plenty of anecdotes and behind-the-scenes footage, along with talking-heads reminiscences and on-camera input from real firefighters—whom we learn played a large role in the film. Russell explains here and elsewhere (yes, there's overlapping) that all the fire in the film is real, not digital, and that the exterior of the grain elevator fire was a real location, while the interiors were a set that, after it was collapsed, could be reconstructed within four hours. They went to Baltimore, we're told, because the city said they could burn what they wanted. But before that, it turns out that Russell staged a fire in Burbank just to walk inside to see what he was facing. Then he talked with "Backdraft" director Ron Howard, who confirmed that a) you can't go digital with fire, and b) fire melts your equipment and is way too hot for most of the crew. The solution was to force the entire film crew to train in firefighting procedures and then use that knowledge to make the film.
"Everything in your body is saying, don't go in there, it's hot, it's smoky, it's dark, it's disorienting," Russell says, while Phoenix philosphizes, "It's not the absence of fear, but the realization that there is something more important than fear" that makes firefighters go into burning buildings day after day. We get a sense of this and the families' attitudes toward the firefighters' hazardous occupations in a nice extra on "Everyday Heroes: Real Stories from Real Firefighters," which shows an actual medal ceremony like the one which takes place in the film.
The making-of and real firefighter features are the best features on this DVD, but the commentary by Russell and film editor Bud Smith is also quite good. Here we learn that the opening fire was originally 20 minutes into the film, but they decided 20 minutes of dialogue wasn't the best way to start a dramatic action film. There are a bunch of details on the commentary that don't appear elsewhere—such as Russell's story about how the biggest explosion they set off was responsible for over 900 911 calls, even though the media had publicized when the explosion would take place. It was bigger than anyone imagined, including Russell—who says that when it happened, he was almost sure that they had just killed someone. But there were no life-threatening injuries on the set. Phoenix really caught on fire, which he points out, and another actor got a permanent scar on his face when a hose coupling flew up and hit him, but no one was seriously hurt.
There are five substantial deleted scenes, many of which detail an alcoholic sideplot involving one of the firefighters (Balthazar Getty, who has to be none too happy to have had most of his stuff taken out).
Rounding out the extras are a Robbie Robertson "Shine Your Light" music video and a handful of previews.
By definition, "Ladder 49" is melodramatic, with the action driving the characters rather than the other way around. Then again, that's probably how firefighters feel about their lives—reacting, rather than acting, and never being in as much control of your day as the average person. Though the filmmakers milk it for a gallon of non-pasteurized emotion, Russell and his cast and crew nonetheless manage to craft an eye-opening, sympathetic, and highly watchable portrait of the dedicated people who never know, when they kiss their families goodbye, whether they'll return that night.