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"Ladder 49" a Powerful Metaphor for True Faith

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 1 Oct
"Ladder 49" a Powerful Metaphor for True Faith

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.

Another first with this film is the positive images of Christianity that remain unsullied by Hollywood’s usual negative clichés and stereotypes.  We see chaplains ministering to the men in their grief and priests performing weddings, baptisms and funerals.  And, although the men talk and drink hard, the profanity is kept to a minimum with no overt sexuality.  For the most part, these men are devoted husbands, fathers and friends who also happen to be everyday heroes.  They’re willing to sacrifice everything for others, and their families are no different.  Their choices and their pain are portrayed realistically, but in the end, it’s others who must come first.  What better example or metaphor could we see for true faith?

A good film for families of older children, this film left few eyes dry during the screening, so take a hankie – and someone you love.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Lots of drinking in bars and restaurants; character drinks alcohol in early morning; characters have drinking contests and get drunk.
  • Language/Profanity:  One f—word, a dozen or so mild obscenities and several profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Men, children shown in underwear and/or bare-chested; two references to character’s lack of virginity and one crude analogy to same; dating couple wake up in bed, having spent the night together (no nudity), but marry two scenes later.
  • Violence:  Multiple shots of raging fires, smoke and conceptual dangers related to same along with firefighter responsibilities (breaking down doors, windows); several dramatic rescues involving high-risk situations; a character falls several stories and is injured, waiting for rescue; a character falls to his death in burning building; a character is burned by steam and is badly disfigured (face is shown very bloody, later referred to by child as “face melting off”).