Standing outside the fire

In 105 minutes, “Ladder 49” (Touchstone) covers a lot of ground: life, death, love, friendship, hate, pain, happiness and loss. Director Jay W. Russell (“Tuck Everlasting”) poignantly captures the story of a Baltimore fireman by exploring the very best and the very worst parts of life itself. Through the film’s beautiful photography, the viewer is transported between the present, where our hero, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), is in great peril, and past, where viewers learn why they should care.

“Ladder 49” celebrates both Jack’s heroic accomplishments as a fire fighter and explores relationships with his wife and friends in the firehouse. Mentored by Chief Kennedy (John Travolta), the viewer witnesses his transitions in the form of flashbacks. We follow Jack’s emotional roller coaster ride from the happiness of his marriage and children to the pain of losing friends.

In an interview with the Hatchet, director Jay Russell described his film as a tribute to firefighters and their families in a post-9/11 world. Although the original script – written before the attacks – was set in New York, Russell changed it to Baltimore after Sept. 11.

“It would have been about one day, instead of every day and all fire departments,” he said. Russell warns viewers that if they’re looking for a second “Backdraft” to look elsewhere. “This isn’t a plot-driven film, it’s character-driven,” he said.Russell also had his actors go through an actual fire fighting training camp for three weeks, which lends the film a certain amount of authenticity. Not even Travolta was spared.

“I was scared it would be a typical Hollywood movie,” said Joaquin Phoenix. He explained how this film varied from the standard formula, citing the kind of unresolved conflicts you see only in reality.

Russell may cover a lot of ground in this film. But he fails to dig deeper than just below the surface at times. Jack is perhaps too good a man, constantly putting himself in increasingly more dangerous situations in the spirit of pure altruism. He struggles internally about the sacrifices he makes at the expense of his family. We learn a lot of things about Jack and the people he cares about, but it’s hard to say if we truly understand them. Some of the heavier conversations are a bit superficial.

The film is marked by a more than capable cast, superior special effects and some deeply touching scenes with such show-stopping lines as “People are always asking me how is it that firefighters run into a burning building when everyone else is running out. Courage is the answer.”

“Ladder 49” is playing now in Washington, D.C.

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