Like every other little boy, I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up. Sliding down the pole, riding around in the fire truck, petting the Dalmatian ' it all looked pretty good to me. In my imagination, however, I never got around to fighting a fire. That didn't look so good ' too hot, too smoky, too dangerous. A guy could get himself killed. And that's why, even before 9/11, we all had a soft spot for the hose-andladder brigade: They routinely put their asses on the line. First in, last out. But 9/11 has had a curious effect on these everyday heroes, raised them onto a pedestal so high that even they must feel a little awkward up there, nowhere to go but down.
In his TV series on FX, 'Rescue Me,' Denis Leary has tried to take care of this problem by portraying the men of Manhattan's Truck 62 as the kind of guys who would gladly use their hero's welcome to get laid. 'All that pussy I was getting after 9/11?' one of them complains to Leary's Tommy Gavin. 'Now, nothing. People forget.' Sexist, racist, homophobic ' there isn't much you can say for these bad boys except that they routinely put their asses on the line. And it's ruining their lives. Still in a state of shock after losing four of their brethren at the World Trade Center, each has retired to his own corner, licking his wounds. Did I mention that the show is excruciatingly funny?
Slow to respond, as usual, Hollywood finally arrives on the scene with Ladder 49, a straight-ahead look at what the average firefighter has to go through to earn a living. Beefed up a bit, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, a good little Catholic boy who just wants to help others. When the movie opens, he's on the 12th floor of a towering inferno that's supposed to remind us of the World Trade Center. Part of the building collapses, and he's trapped amid the debris, his whole life flashbacking before our eyes ' well, not his whole life, just the firefighting part. It's a pretty conventional story: firstday jitters, hazing, first-fire jitters, acts of heroism, wife, kids, more acts of heroism.
Lewis Colick, who wrote the script, doesn't provide a lot in the way of conflict. Jack keeps putting himself in harm's way, but that's his job, and the movie doesn't make much out of the fact that he seems like a bit of a risk junkie. Maybe they all are. Maybe that's what makes them heroes. Jack's wife, Linda, nicely underplayed by Jacinda Barrett, sleeps with one eye open, lest the Grim Reaper make a play for her husband, but she gradually comes to accept that a fireman's gotta do what a fireman's gotta do. Which means there's nothing standing between Jack and a Medal of Valor, nothing except lacerating flames and thick clouds of smoke. Cue heroic music.
Baltimore, where the movie's set, seems to have been chosen for its supply of decrepit warehouses, but director Jay Russell doesn't exactly light the screen on fire, as Ron Howard did in Backdraft. Of course, that's all Ron Howard did in Backdraft; fire was the star of that show. Whereas Phoenix, looking more and more like Marlon Brando, is clearly the star of this one. John Travolta plays the captain, but he seems miscast as a conventionally unconventional hero. Only Phoenix manages to rise above, show us the real man behind the hero, the fear that makes courage all that more impressive. The movie never mentions 9/11. It doesn't have to.