What makes firefighters run into a burning building when everyone else is running out? What gives some people such a sense of brotherly love that they would willingly give their lives in the hope of saving others? These are questions our nation has considered deeply since September 11, 2001. Ladder 49, the latest release by director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting)–which hits theaters this weekend–makes a fond attempt to answer them.
The story hinges on rookie fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) whose life we witness in flashbacks as he lies on a pile of rubble in the bowels of an imploding building. Waiting for rescue, unable to move, memories pass hazily in and out of Jack’s mind–memories of his time as a firefighter, of his family, and especially of his mentor, Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta). As Jack recalls how, over the course of a decade, he went from fumbling newcomer to lean, mean, fire-fighting machine, we are treated not only to a peek inside the lives of good firemen, but the lives of good men.
The heroic hydrant jockeys who populate the world of Ladder 49 are simple, middle-class Joes who love their families and their job. They drink beer together on Saturday night only to gather again, slightly bleary eyed, for Mass on Sunday morning. While the flashbacks roll on, Jack’s life traces the arc of what was once the American dream. He asks the perfect girl on a date, makes her his bride, buys a home in a good neighborhood, and has two bright-eyed cherubs who worry about their father’s safety. The only thing marring his paradisiacal existence is the very real possibility that he, like a few of his friends, might have to give up the dream to answer the call of duty. It is, in essence, a composite of firemen’s lives everywhere, and there isn’t much I could reveal here that isn’t betrayed in the trailer.
But while the film paints a somewhat idyllic portrait of our bravest and best, it also reflects the heart change that affected America in the aftermath of 9/11 when we collectively remembered who our true heroes are: not gangsters, criminals, and thugs, but the men who sacrifice themselves to protect us every day. There’s something particularly appropriate about ’90s megastar John Travolta’s being the father figure presiding over the culture shift, as if he’s passing the baton to a new breed of leading men. No Chili Palmer, Vincent Vega-style cools lurk here. Instead, Travolta and the rest of the cast give us characters who are actually worthy of our admiration. Unlike the incessant chatterboxes in Pulp Fiction, a movie that characterized the last decade for many, these men say very little–but mean a lot.
In light of all this, it’s a shame a few of the film’s weaker elements tend to snuff out some of the enjoyment. Just as he did in The Village, Joaquin Phoenix turns in a quietly dignified performance as a modest everyman; but his counterpart Jacinda Barrett (Gen-Xers may recognize her as the fashion model from The Real World: London) can’t keep up as his wife. Her barely disguised British accent drifts in and out during scenes of high drama, and her appearance and demeanor never alter during their supposed ten years of marriage. But even more than a miscast leading lady, too broad a pen stroke in scripting undermines our connection with the characters. The experiences we see feel authentic, but not specific, as though we are marking pictures in a family album. It makes little sense that once the film succeeds in making us care more about the firemen than the spectacle of the fire, it plods ahead with lengthy inferno scenes anyway.
Nevertheless, these complaints seem trivial compared to the impression we are left with as the credits roll: the sentiment that courageous men still make up the heart of this nation–men willing to face ultimate danger for all our sakes. Their ambitions are simple, and there is little complexity in their sense of honor. If they’re torn in any way concerning their jobs, it is in whom they owe allegiance to first–family or community.
This good-hearted view of the world will likely leave Ladder 49 vulnerable to rabid attacks from the culture critics who don’t much appreciate such straightforward sentiment. Miffed that the film contains no ironic, seedy underbelly, they will say that it is a sanitized version of reality. They will say that it is contrived and that it violates the rules of diversity and sophistication by including no female firefighters. They will say that it doesn’t look like America.
And they will be wrong. In fact, the kink in the water line of Ladder 49 is that it looks so much like our lives, the familiarity threatens to breed, if not contempt, then at least boredom. But if looked at as a tribute to our way of life, as opposed to an action blockbuster, it could resonate with audiences in a way no other film touching on the subject has to date.
Clearly Russell & Co. want to connect 9/11 and the people who gave their lives that day to some greater spirit of the United States, something cynical-minded viewers may find a bit opportunistic. That’s fair–in some ways it is. But what’s wrong with taking that opportunity when the aim is to celebrate the best of who we are: a people of faith, family, sacrifice, and honor?
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.