"Ladder 49": A Firefighter Film That Can Help Rally Support

Nov. 1, 2004
Hollywood finally has made a movie that realistically portrays the excitement, the challenge and the dangers of firefighting. “Ladder 49” shows firefighters as they really are – in their firehouse, at home with their families and, on occasion, guzzling beer in a local saloon with their friends. Unlike some other attempts in movies and on television, this is a motion picture that firefighters can identify with and be proud of. The story is set in Baltimore, but it could be any big city and it will give people everywhere a better understanding of the fire department and the firefighters who risk their lives to protect others.

It traces the career of a young firefighter (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who reports on his first assignment to the firehouse of Engine 33 and Ladder 49. There he comes under the guidance of a veteran captain (John Travolta) who eventually is promoted to battalion chief, but still maintains a close relationship with his men and continues to be an influence in their lives. Travolta nails his character perfectly and Phoenix is convincing as the eager rookie who grows into a tough and smart firefighter. Their performances brought back memories of officers and firefighters I have known over the years, some of whom became my lifelong friends.

The firefighters of Engine 33 and Ladder 49 are a hard-running crew and the film explores slices of firehouse life that offer sharp insights into the men and their job. At times, it leaves them sad, tired and stressed out, but there are other times when they’re hilariously funny, with that special brand of wacky firehouse humor that makes you laugh until it hurts. Some people will think that the practical jokes are exaggerated, but as one who has been both the victim and the instigator of some far-out firehouse gags, I can testify that it really happens.

With all of their strengths and weaknesses revealed, the firefighters come across as heroic, but human, totally committed to their job and to each other. The film accurately captures the tight bond that exists between the members of a busy fire company as they share the incredible highs and terrible lows that are part of a firefighter’s life. Thankfully, unlike some other shows, these firefighters are not portrayed as low-grade morons who risk their lives in stupid, undisciplined ways. The risk is always there, but Ladder 49 is a well-trained team and very good at the dangerous job it has to do.

There is plenty of action, with heavy smoke and fire showing as the companies respond to working fires, where some things go right and other things go wrong. The muffled voices and the hissing of the SCBA sound authentic as they crawl and grope their way from room to room. Unfortunately, like all fire movies, the film makers get carried away with pyrotechnics; they need more smoke and less flame to show what it’s really like inside a burning building. However, most of the fire scenes are realistic, except for one that has a helicopter hovering between buildings for no apparent reason.

But that’s quibbling over minor points and there’s a lot more to “Ladder 49” than spectacular fire scenes. It’s also a story about family life and the strain that being a firefighter imposes on families. Some scenes are uncomfortable to watch because they are too true; it’s not easy being the wife or child of a firefighter. While it’s good for the public to see this movie, I’m not so sure that the families of firefighters have to see it. They already know what it’s like and don’t have to be reminded of how bad it can get. But some may want to see it and it’s up to each person to make his or her own decision.

It is also a rough movie for anyone who has lost a friend in the line of duty and it can be unbearable for the survivors of a fallen firefighter. I saw it at special preview for the fire community and the audience included several survivor families, who had to walk out on certain graphic scenes that brought back bitter memories. There was some quiet crying in the lobby of the theater as people came out of the auditorium and tried to compose themselves. Some went back in; a few stayed out until it was over.

Because it’s so well done, the fire-rescue service can take pride in this powerful motion picture and the public should be encouraged to see it. Undoubtedly, it will add to their appreciation of firefighters and perhaps it can help rally support for the issues that confront so many fire departments – the most important being the need for more firefighters. As for the fire service itself, “Ladder 49” is another reminder that everyone doesn’t always get to go home.

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