Ladder 49 is an upright, noble-minded World War II-type picture in search of an upright, noble-minded war. Finding none, it settles for honoring lives similar to those of so many who died on the homeland front lines not long ago: firefighters. This tribute-themed drama, directed with moderation by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) from a sturdy script by Lewis Colick (October Sky), is appreciative, soothing, stalwart, and upbeat even in tragedy. And although the characters of firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) and his great friend and mentor, fire chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), are smoothed of any jarring faults or shortcomings, neither are they and their brethren oversold as heroes. Aside from the awesome flames and pyrotechnic scenes of crisis, danger, and part-of-the-job bravery, the movie is a quiet salute; it does its job.
And it's got quiet, sturdy performances to match: a beefed-up Phoenix and a reined-in Travolta balance each other believably, playing men made interesting and poignant by their averageness rather than by their eccentricity and magnetism. Ladder 49 is set in Baltimore -- which, following Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, and The Wire, is turning into the on-screen poster city for grit, wear, and resilience. As the story opens, Jack, having gone above and beyond to rescue a trapped civilian from a burning warehouse, becomes trapped himself by collapsing debris. While he fights to survive, he flashes back to moments in his life that have led to this one -- his first day as a rookie, his first fire, the first time he met the sparkle-eyed woman (Jacinda Barrett) who would become his wife and the mother of their two kids, the first loss of a brother-in-arms.... While Jack maneuvers to gain breathing room, his buddies work frantically to get to him. This is no bellowing Backdraft, nor does it need to be. Under the circumstances, Ladder 49 provides illumination enough.