Release Date:  October 8, 2004
Rating:  PG-13 (for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language)
Genre: Action/Drama/Thriller
Run Time: 1 hr. 30 min.
Director:  Jay Russell
Actors:   Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels, Robert Patrick, Kevin Chapman, Jay Hernandez, Billy Burke

Would you rushing into a towering inferno to save the life of a stranger, risking your life and leaving your wife and children to carry on without you?  This is the question asked by “Ladder 49,” and it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.

In the midst of a fiery blaze one snowy winter night in Baltimore, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) does what he’s trained to do.  He goes into the burning warehouse, where the grain elevator is on fire, searching for survivors and helping them out.  Only this time, there’s no time for Jack to escape.  When part of the building collapses, Jack is trapped inside the blazing rubble, and it’s up to his colleagues, led by Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), to get him out.  While the men search for Jack, he drifts in and out of consciousness, recalling a decade of firefighting, marriage and family life.

Written by Lewis Colick (“Ghosts of Mississippi”) and directed by Jay Russell (“My Dog Skip”), “Ladder 49” is a gripping and powerful portrayal of what it really means to be a firefighter.  It is the perfect film for a post-911 society that is still coming to grips with the kind of sacrificial courage which made hundreds of men rush into the Twin Towers, where they saved hundreds of lives but lost their own.

Russell says that he made the film to honor firefighters and their families, but clearly, it honors all who brave incomprehensible dangers in order to save lives, including police officers and soldiers.  The film also pays tribute to the fathers, mothers, wives and children who support these brave men and women in their calling, even when that calling means long absences, painful injuries and sometimes, death.

Unlike “Backdraft,” the 1991 film directed by Ron Howard, “Ladder 49” is technically correct – even down to the dialogue, which was tweaked by firefighters.  All the fires were real, and the actors spent months training at Baltimore’s renowned fire academy, where they faced real crises and dangers alongside professionals. Phoenix was reportedly so good that he not only graduated with his class but worked a full month on the job afterwards.  Production notes for the film claim that he was even offered a position by the fire department.

The dedication certainly shows.  The flames are incredibly realistic and the dangers – along with the plot, which is unhampered by the back-and-forth between timeframes – are suspenseful.  We are left wondering whether this film will have a happy Hollywood ending after all, while sitting on the edge of our seats.

Phoenix does a phenomenal job with his role.  Although he’s not very friendly during interviews, he’s one of the best actors in the business.  His various transformations, from evil personified in the colossal flop, “Buffalo Soldier,” to shy suitor in “The Village,” to this role, are astonishing, and only serve to underscore the breadth of this actor’s abilities.  Travolta – who is a perfect gentleman with the media – seems slightly off kilter with his role, as if he’s not quite sure about playing second fiddle.  But he pulls it off, as do Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick and Jacinda Barrett (as Jack’s wife), in standout performances.  Particularly moving is Chestnut’s scene where his character shares deep-rooted fears after being badly burned.