DETROIT -- John Travolta can't see the hand before his face, but he can feel the heat.
He thinks he hears someone to his right, though it could just be a voice bouncing off a wall. He gropes in front of him on hands and knees and feels the floor fall away in front of him. Is it a 3- or 30-foot drop? He only knows he has to act before the room gets any hotter.
What sounds like a scene from the new firefighter drama "Ladder 49" is not: It is part of the training Travolta and costar Joaquin Phoenix undertook for their roles. And while neither is claiming these sessions made them bona fide firefighters, they hope that their respect for the profession shines through in every frame.
"The movie was bigger than all of us," says Travolta. "Only a couple of times in a career do you get to do movies for a bigger reason than yourself."
Visiting Detroit this month to promote the film, Travolta, Phoenix and director Jay Russell say they shared a desire to get the true story of firefighters' lives out to the world. They visited Engine 5/Ladder 20 in the Cass Corridor (West Alexandrine between Cass and Second) and Engine 54/Ladder 26 (Trinity and Grand River) on the city's west side as part of a nationwide publicity tour.
"We wanted to be truthful and authentic," says Phoenix. "We didn't want to pull punches. It seems so often in film you have to create these scenarios in which your protagonist has to do something heroic, and it always feels very contrived. Here we don't have to create these fake scenarios. These are real heroes saving people every day."
In "Ladder 49," Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a Baltimore fireman who gets trapped deep in a blazing warehouse. As fellow firefighters try to dig through the rubble to get him out, the story flashes back to his days as a rookie, learning the ropes from fire chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta) and starting a family with wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett).
The 29-year-old Phoenix, so soft-spoken he barely seems able to blow out a candle let alone put out a five-alarm fire, says the three months spent with Baltimore firefighters provided invaluable background for his role. Once inside a burning building, he says, "You can't see, you can't hear, you can't really touch anything. All these senses are muted and it's really scary."
Realism is what sets the movie apart from Ron Howard's 1991 hit "Backdraft." The Internet site nitpickers.com is filled with accounts of firefighters literally yelling at the screen when rescue units in Howard's film stormed burning buildings without the proper equipment, especially masks.
"Ladder 49" presents the more routine and sometimes mundane aspects of life in a firehouse -- just guys battling blazes and trying to hold their families together.
While critics may still pick at the melodramatic elements, local firefighters who have seen it at preview screenings give it high marks.
"Pretty realistic," says Jeffrey Pegg, 33, who works at Detroit's Engine 21/Ladder 28 at Linwood and Calvert. He especially liked the depiction of Morrison's first fire, where the rookie encounters a staircase teeming with rats. "Of course, they aren't always in that Hollywood volume," he says, "but I've seen dogs, cats running to get out of there the same way."
He also says that the scenes of firehouse camaraderie and practical jokes are right on. "The part with the buckets, getting wet in the summertime, that's the way it is. Anything to help take the edge off," he says.
Pegg was probably most impressed with Travolta's depiction of the fire chief and the tough calls he has to make.
For Travolta, the key question in the film was the chief's choice to put more and more men at risk in attempting to rescue Morrison, who had become like a younger brother to him. "I asked some firefighters what they thought they would do," Travolta remembers. "At first they said 'No,' they wouldn't have done it, and then their wives said, 'Oh, yeah, right,' and they had to cop to it. Almost all would have done the same thing."