Ladder 49 (2004)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-4 ; L-4 ; S/N-2

If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
Proverbs 24:10-11 (RSV)

Ladder 49

It has been 13 years since a major film centered on firefighters—Backdraft—and between us and then is the fiery specter of 9/11 and the Twin Towers collapsing. There is no direct mention of 9/11 in screenwriter Lewis Colick’s script, but as the first scene we see is a burning 20-story building, there is no doubt that the audience is thinking of that terrible day when so many firemen were lost as they rushed into the burning buildings to sacrifice their own safety for the welfare of others. That question—why do you run into burning buildings when others are running out?—is raised several times in the film. Director Jay Russell, by paying so much attention to the details of the daily lives of the men of Baltimore’s Ladder 49, provides an answer to the question, and in the process, gives us a far better film that the earlier one.

We follow the fortunes, through numerous flashbacks, of fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) as he develops from a green rookie into a seasoned veteran who refuses to accept a desk job later on. The film opens with Jack rescuing a fear-crazed man trapped in a 20-story building that is burning out of control. Jack heroically is able to lower the man to safety but becomes trapped himself when part of the building collapses and sends him plummeting several floors into the interior of the structure.

When he comes to, Jack is able to stay in contact with his chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) by means of his radiophone. Injured, Jack can barely crawl, so it is up to his comrades to find and bring him out. During this suspenseful time we are taken back to key moments in the life of Ladder 49. Most of the hours at the fire station are spent waiting for the alarm bell to ring, the firefighters spending their time pulling off practical jokes (there’s a funny one pulled on Jack upon his initial day involving the rite of confession!), card playing, and maintaining the equipment. As the years past, various tragedies occur, making us all too aware that firefighting is one of the most dangerous vocations in the nation. Jack also meets in a supermarket the young woman whom he will pursue and marry—Linda (Jacinda Barrett), who turns out to be just the right woman for him and his profession. As the years past and they have children, Linda worries and wishes he would accept a less hazardous position. However, when he does receive such an offer (through the good graces of Mike, who is also worried about Jack’s health and safety) and turns to Linda for advice, she, knowing that he is at his best in his present dangerous pursuit, tells him to stay where he is.

This is a fine tribute, grippingly filmed, to the men (largely—entirely in the film, but no doubt destined to include more women in the future) to whom we owe so much. Jack and his comrades will linger in your memory long after the credits roll and the screen goes dark.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) The question— why do you run into burning buildings when others are running out?—comes up several times in the film: what do you think is Jack’s reason? Are you engaged in a vocation that gives you a similar feeling as Jack’s does?

2) What did you think of the poured water being the transition between the baptism scene and the unconscious Jack trapped in the building? What meanings does water take on in these two scenes?

3) Based on what we see in this film, how would you define courage? How is it more than the absence of fear?

4) How similar are the relationships Jack has with Linda and his comrades similar to what the church at its best offers? How does the film show that we need such community?

5) How is Jack a good example of 1 John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (RSV)

6) How did you feel at the end of the film? If you stayed for the credits and listened to the closing song, did this soften your feeling? To whom is the son appealing in the chorus, “Shine your light down on me/Lift me up so I can see”?