Ladder 49: A Bond Forged in Flame
Jack Acies, Last Alarm: Aboard Ladder 49
The Big One
It's hard to present an heroic tale to a culture which takes no stock in heroism. What makes heroes? Why do they do what they do? What makes them rush into a burning building when everyone else is running out? Ladder 49 would answer these questions.
An old warehouse is a blaze and Baltimore City Ladder 49 rolls out to the rescue. As FF Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is helping a trapped victim into the harness which will lower the victim to safety Morrison falls into the pit of the fire. The story of his career is told in flashbacks as he struggles to regain consciousness and fight his way to safety.
In a flash, we meet the lads from Engine 33 and its co-quartered companion company Ladder 49 in the old industrial City of Baltimore. Originally assigned to the Pumper, Engine 33, Morrison endures the scud work and lively hijinx of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and the motley crew of experienced firefighters. Captain Kennedy takes Jack under his wing to make him the best firefighter in the city.
Baltimore is a good stand in for New York City. Both have similar patterns of European immigration and internal relocation from the deep South. There is a certain similarity in speech patterns and both were to some extent or another violently against the Union cause in the Civil War.
The Baltimore Fire House boils over with childish pranks but there is a comraderie that grows into an extended family which includes the wives and the children. Firefighters don't outwardly speak of the blood-stripe or say, as they do in The Army, "You profit when your buddy buys the farm," but a loss does catapult Morrison into the Hook and Ladder which in Baltimore doubles as a rescue team. Captain Kennedy soon to be promoted to Chief warns Morrison that "in Hook and Ladder you can't follow the hose out of the fire." Morrison turns down an offer to serve in the comparative safety of a Chief's Aide.
Transitions between present to the past are smoothly executed to humanize the heroes, their lives, their camaraderie, their courage without ignoring their families and the risks that are silently accepted. From the time Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) takes the probie Morrison under his wing, the firemen bond's on and off the job, drinking to extravagant excess against the backdrop of the drama playing out around them of spectacular rescues from buildings aflame.
What makes a hero? Howard Fast in Sparticus said from outward appearance heroes are not demi-gods but pitiably ordinary looking people. Yet it is impossible to explain to an increasingly dominate anti-heroic culture the concept of heroism and the attendant pain and self-sacrifice which attaches to it.
Now trapped into the middle of the inferno, Jack Morrison radioes Chief Kennedy that the rescuer needs to be rescued. A slow cut between Jack's first child's Baptism and the water dripping onto his forehead after his fall into the pit of the fiery hell make an eerie blood curdling parallel. Morrison and his Firefighting comrades fight to within feet of each other. As the building wobbles toward a collapse, a tough decision has to be made. Should firefighters risk more men and equipment in attempting the rescue of one person?
The scenes of fire and rescue are spectacular in re-creating the flash of flame and chocking smoke. John Travolta falls into a mature role as a supporting actor with ease and polish very different from the Brooklyn teenager who once danced his way to stardom. Travolta carries the part of a man living on the edge where an otherwise frivolous life can become serious and deadly at the sound of a bell.
If Baltimore has sufficient numbers of Irish in its Fire Department to support a Bag Pipe Band capable of playing Amazing Grace tolerably well at a funeral to stand in for New York, then Jack Morrison, the main character, is one who stands for all the losses firefighters suffered on 9 - 11- 01, a collage which in face of the caprices of fate celebrates the lives of the fallen.
"This is essentially a male weepie about strong, simple men and strong simple women behind them, and as such it's platitudinous rubbish."
Placing the devastating fire in Baltimore as opposed to New York and having one man Jack Morrison stand in for the multitudes of fallen from 9 - 11 eliminated a touchy potential political comment on the concept of heroism. Apart for professed dislike of the Irish which infected every criticism for the film, every critic faltered over the concept of heroism. Indeed as part of the anti-heroic culture, the Establishment critics could not be expected to understand the concept at all.
Much of the criticism of the movie stems from this very simple proposition. Their criticism does not lack a significant political dimension. 9 - 11 is a tough place to feature The Bush unless of course you're going to rewrite the entire script: FDNY fought on even after President Bush publicly fouled himself and ran off somewhere into Canada.
Recognizing mortality and inevitable regrettable losses, Ladder 49 in avoiding the temptation of an "Hollywood ending," ultimately tributes all firefighters, not necessarily those lost in tragedies of Biblical proportions like 9-11-01.
Jack Acies FP's crime reporter.