RATHER THAN piling on the special effects and engaging in digital wizardry, this down-to-earth film looks closely at the lives of fire-fighters. And tries to provide viewers with a real appreciation of the rewards and pressures of battling fires, an activity that is made out to be part job, part calling and entirely consuming.
"Ladder 49" shows us men who live with constant tension. ``As they are the ones who run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out.'' Without going into great depths, the film derives power from the idea of unity in the face of danger.
A flash back structure emerges as the story unfolds. The beautiful background score is evocative and goes along with the theme of sacrifice and honour.
The film's impressive opening scene records a raging fire in a 20-storey building when Baltimore's Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) goes inside to rescue people among them being one panic-stricken man hanging on a window ledge. Jack manages to get him into a room where the fire is yet to reach and while other team members take the man to safety, Jack falls through a hole in the centre of the building and onto a few floors below, stunned and half buried under debris. Eventually he regains consciousness and is able to radio his mentor, Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who mounts the rescue mission.
It is clear that the chances of saving Jack are slim.
Meanwhile, as Jack drifts in and out of consciousness his life flashes by and it is evident then what the form of the narration is going to be. From his days as a rookie in the fire department every important episode in his life is intercut with his present danger.
What makes it all so touching is that as it explores Jack's life it shows empathy and sensitivity for a job that is often taken for granted. This alone elevates the film. A lot of what goes on in Jack's life is routine the horseplay at the firehouse, meeting with buddies for a drink at the bar, meeting girls at the supermarket and calling them for a date which moves on to falling in love and eventually marriage to Linda (Jacinda Barret). They have kids, and Linda goes through the fears and uncertainties of a life that is fraught with danger. Which get even more accentuated when a buddy dies in action and another gets badly disfigured. All the spectacular rescues fade when the effects on his family start making him edgy and restless. Director Jay Russell goes back and forth between the past and the present and brings in a particular humanity to all the scenes just as he brings in sensitivity when it comes to Jack's relationship with Chief Kennedy that is complex, yet caring. Kennedy even worries about him and wonders whether he should move on and take on safer assignments. But then Jack wants to stay. And all along this sense of loyalty to comrades is not so much for the cause or the flag, but more for the buddies so that there is never any sense of letting anyone down. The director wants to show that it is the camaraderie that drives these men. The film is not about a dying man whose life passes before his eyes but more about a man who wants to save lives and how he puts his own into danger and what his family and life mean to him. It is only because of the attention to the human elements that one should see "Ladder 49."
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