The Post-9/11 Fireman Image
We may not have seen, in the movies, as direct a reflection of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as Ladder 49. Without ever mentioning the events of that day, this movie's agenda becomes clear. It's an ode to the firemen, solemn and respectful, always keeping in mind the real dangers they face, which have become all the more real and celebrated after the terrorist attacks.
The intent of the movie is noble, but the execution, sadly, doesn't measure up. Ladder 49 is just about the most ironed-flat fireman tribute a group of people could make. Its story is carefully composed of every necessary element -- evidence of camaraderie, a sweet love story, lots of dangerous firefighting and heroics and tragedies -- and every detail is wrinkle free. It's effective only to the point where you find it bothersome when you can't detect any human anomalies. It's like (and I can't believe I'm using this analogy) the dilemma posed in The Matrix -- people were fine living in the world created for them until they noticed things were too perfect.
And you can tell that everyone, from the cast to the screenwriter to the director to the production crew, was entirely committed to making this the most glorious, dramatic, heart-rending piece of work ever dedicated to firemen. The explosions are a-plenty in the fire scenes. John Travolta, as the fire chief of his station, is such a jokester -- until he must emote... very... seriously. Joaquin Phoenix, as the hero whose life the movie centers on, is the best kind of guy -- brave, good-sported, loving, honorable, and always with a face that says, I'm a puppy you know you just want to take home. The suburban life the firemen live is idyllic without being chaste -- they drink, chase women, play jokes on each other, and even get on each other's nerves -- but they're all Good People.
Conflicts are few in this tale -- Phoenix's character is sometimes faced with choices, but none that tempt him in the wrong direction. The movie seems too busy avoiding any semblance of offense to create such a scenario. In a way, though, this comes across as a bit condescending. The film is structured to make Phoenix's character the universal stand-in for middle-class America's idea of the perfect fireman. There's little room for variation -- his buddies all seem similar to him, manly yet sensitive, with simple aspirations. He's the fireman you want around when you're trapped under burning debris, the hero who goes home to a healthy family and is loyal to his friends and his duty.
Is this how we're expected to see firemen now? Although it's not an unattainable standard, it's still mighty presumptuous. However, after 9/11, we're probably reluctant to see them any other way. Those firemen that day were indeed heroes. We also want to believe they were all good men and women, more than ever, and Ladder 49 is the reflection of this desire. It's sour grapes to pooh-pooh the thoughtfulness here, but it's also impossible to disguise such a display of bland spotlessness as anything resembling real life.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "PG-13" for intense fire and rescue situations and for language.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.