Ladder 49

They are willing to lay their time, energy and lives on the line to protect the property and lives of those around them. It’s an unnecessarily thankless job, but the men and women who fight fires are among the most devoted and selfless people on the planet. Ladder 49 is a beautifully real movie that pays poignant homage to their service and sacrifice. There aren’t a lot of movies out there that get better for me the more I watch them. Ladder 49 is one of them. There is something tragically beautiful in the way it portrays the real lives and experiences of firefighters. It endeavors to help those of us who have little knowledge of the world of the firefighter to understand the fundamental enigma they face everyday: Why is it that the firefighter runs into a burning building when everyone else is running out?

Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is a search and rescue firefighter for the city of Baltimore. He’s like many in his line of work…married, two kids, loves his work and his life. On a night just like any other his firehouse receives a call to a granary where a dangerous fire has incapacitated workers on its perilously high twelfth floor. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jack’s team enters the towering inferno, making their way to the trapped workers.

Everything goes fine until a massive explosion rocks the structure. The floor underneath Jack gives way and he plummets four stories becoming trapped himself. As he struggles to escape, his own team works desperately to get in to rescue him. As they race against the brutal flames he can’t help but think back on the most important events in his life. His thoughts turn to his family and friends and the reasons that drive him to get out and go on.

Director Jay Russell and his very devoted cast have created a heartrending tribute to the joys and sorrows, successes and failures of the firefighter and those in his life. It’s a story of remarkable authenticity that is crafted perfectly and acted with depth and dedication. There is no play for excessive dramatization or over-the-top emotion. In fact, most of the ordeals in Ladder 49 are based on real life accounts, making it a sort of fictionalized documentary that feels as much truth as it does drama.

The film’s sound and technical crew round out the cast by creating one of the movie’s most memorable characters: fire. There are no CGI flames here to distract or deflate the moment. The fires are the real deal and they wield a power that that sears through the screen. William Ross completes the package with a score that touches the heart. The music moves eloquently from heart-warming ballad-like melodies accompanying the everyday life, to gut wrenching themes of danger and sadness.

The characters and stories of Ladder 49 become more moving for me each time I see it. I find it to be a memorable film that easily earns the right to repeat viewings. It’s a fitting cinematic tribute to the lives real firefighters lead and the willingness they show to give it all up to protect the lives of the rest of us. The sights and sounds of Ladder 49 can merely be done justice with the high quality digital encoding and hot 5.1 Dolby sound that you can only get from a DVD. If remotely possible, I strongly encourage taking full advantage of as many entertainment center bells and whistles when watching this disc. It’s worth it.

The bonus materials menu is short but significant. There’s no space wasted on pointless irrelevant fluff. For starters, I appreciate the fact that the menu shows the length of each feature. It’s nice to know how long I’m going to spend before I hit that enter button. The Making of Ladder 49 is surprisingly comprehensive given it’s relatively short length. It touches briefly on everything from the actors’ training at an academy for firefighting to the complicated sets designed to recreate terrifying fires and collapsing buildings.

If you’re interested in learning a little about the real thing, Everyday Heroes: Real Stories From Real Fire Fighters gives you a fascinating peek into that world. As an additional tribute, you’ll find the music video for the film’s song “Shine Your Light” performed by Robbie Robertson. I’m usually not a fan of those kinds of musical features but this one fits with the rest of material nicely.

The deleted scenes run for thirteen minutes and they’re excellent. I only wish Jay Russell had bothered to add some commentary about why they were cut. Russell did record a commentary track for the feature presentation. He and editor Bud Smith spend the duration of the movie talking through the pleasures and difficulties of making such a powerful film. They’re presentation sounds rehearsed and edited, losing that impromptu edge that makes many commentaries lively. Nevertheless, it’s a good source of great background information on the film and the process of bringing it to life.

Ladder 49 is available in either widescreen or fullscreen ( I strongly recommend the widescreen version) and is a handsome DVD worth picking up for your collection.