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Ladder 49
Touchstone Pictures
105 minutes (PG-13 rating for intense fire and rescue situations and language)
Commentary by Kevin Miller

Faith, family, and firefighting—these are the core values that bubble and surge constantly at the heart of this film. Every so often, one of them rises to the surface to raise a question about which is most important and how each value can be pursued without sacrificing the other two. While these dilemmas are not always resolved, they do lead to some interesting reflections on all three topics.

Firefighting:Ladder 49 is a film that celebrates firefighting as a profession and firefighters as people. With the embers of grief from 9/11 still smoldering, how could it do anything but? Consequently, it features numerous scenes of firemen dropping everything and dashing out to answer the next call. They charge into flaming infernos, rescue helpless victims, and generally play the hero. During such scenes, Ladder 49 is like a fire hose stretched taut with water: Everything is functioning exactly as it should. The fires blaze with authenticity, the acting never fails to convince, and the situations the firemen encounter feel adequately realistic. Surprisingly, even John Travolta does not seem out of place as the firehouse captain.

While out on a call, there is not much time for philosophizing. Situations come up, and the firemen react. But back at the firehouse, it’s a different story. Here, we get to see the other side of these men as they laugh, learn, grieve, and ponder the significance of what they do. This is a true family, a band of brothers. They love hard, fight hard, work hard, and play hard. In this group, nothing can remain hidden for long. Authenticity is not an option. Differences come up, and resolving them is rarely pretty. But when the next call comes, all conflicts are cast aside in favor of creating a unified front against their common foe. This is community as it should be.

Family:Ladder 49 is also a strong affirmation of family. Virtually all of the firefighters are portrayed as working class men who enjoy nothing more than a backyard birthday barbecue with their wives and kids. And those who aren’t married become like an extended network of uncles and older brothers to those that are. Once again, there is a strong sense of kinship at work here that makes the viewer long for that sort of thing if he or she hasn’t experienced it already.

Everyone struggles to find a balance between career and family. But in the world of firefighting—or any career that has the potential to place your life in jeopardy—this conflict is intensified, often to the breaking point. When you are young and single, dashing into a burning building is a rush, “drama in real life.” But as this film’s ten-year timeline illustrates, when a spouse and children enter the picture, suddenly, things become more complicated. Can you be an effective firefighter and a family man? At what point does your obligation to one role begin to militate against the other? Sure, you’re doing it to save other people, as our hero Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) often tells his children. But what if his children lose their father in the process? How do you balance the value of the two lives—the firefighter’s and the victim’s—in their eyes?

Jack wrestles with this question throughout the film, but the only real answer he seems to come up with is that any loss of human life is tragic. Therefore, he and his crew will do their best to save everyone they can. And if they run into a burning building, they will do their utmost to make sure that every last member of the team makes it back out. And if one of their teammates doesn’t make it out, well, that’s the way it goes in this business. It’s back on the truck and out to the next call. Life goes on. “Let’s do it for Johnny!” It is unfortunate that a film that deals so blatantly with issues of life and death does not allow the discussion to get beyond such locker room rhetoric or reassuring platitudes uttered to a child before bedtime.

Faith: Apart from Raising Helen, which features a priest as one of its main characters, I don’t think I’ve been to church so many times in one movie. Each time a major event occurs—birth, wedding or death—it’s off to the cathedral. Even though these guys are a little rough around the edges, some central part of them recognizes the need to acknowledge a higher power on such occasions. That said, for these men, faith seems more like a flashlight than a streetlamp. It is a culturally inherited set of rituals and beliefs. They don’t use it as a central, guiding light to illuminate the path their lives should take. They merely turn to it when the power goes out. Even then, it’s usually after the fact as they attempt to resolve their grief. In the middle of an emergency situation, appeals for help from the divine never even enter the equation. The firefighters function on guts and pure survival instinct. I think this is operative for many people today. If we are really honest, even those of us who claim some sort of religious affiliation often tend toward “practical atheism” We don’t pray until we have to. Even then, we are apt to resist going that route if at all possible. It is interesting to ponder why that is…

Nevertheless, these guys have a firm grasp on one of the most important Christian virtues: sacrifice. This word comes up again and again throughout this film. The firefighters sacrifice for each other, for their families, and for the people they are trying to rescue. Sometimes, this happens in a very literal way, as in “a life for a life.” At other times, it is less blatant. A missed soccer game here, a surrendering of the ego there. Sure, some people will say this film lionizes a group of men and women who are no more or less heroic than the rest of us. Not every firefighter is as pure-hearted as Jack Morrison. But at the heart of this film is a tremendous sense of honor and loyalty that is thoroughly admirable, whether or not it is completely accurate.

When addressing his disciples, Jesus said “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). These men seem to have no problem doing that. But what about laying your life down for a stranger? Is that not an even greater test of virtue? And yet, this is exactly what these guys are called on to do all of the time. The fact that they do so willingly demonstrates clearly that whether or not they appear to have it all together on the outside, these guys have got it right where it counts. I sure hope the same can be said about me.

Copyright @ 2004 Kevin Miller.


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