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Film / Ladder 49

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A 2004 drama film, directed by Jay Russell, that follows the life and heroics of Baltimore City Firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) from his first day on the job to his last fire, the focal point of the film. It also stars John Travolta as Deputy Chief Mike Kennedy, his former Captain with whom he develops a very close friendship, and Jacinda Barrett as Linda, Jack's eventual wife.

The film opens with Jack saving the life of a man who is trapped in a blazing grain elevator. However, immediately after doing so, the grain dust in the building explodes, resulting in the inside of the building collapsing underneath him. Jack falls several floors, breaks his leg, and is trapped among the rubble. The movie cuts back and forth between important scenes from his life (him meeting and eventually marrying Linda, the birth of their first child and their joys and struggles as a family); his working and bonding with his fellow firefighters; several major fires (each of which has a profound impact on Jack and/or his family); and his own attempt to escape to a safe area of the building in order to be rescued by his fellow firemen.

This film series contains examples of:

  • Action Prologue: Jack inside the grain elevator looking for and saving survivors, and the elevator's subsequent internal collapse, injuring Jack and trapping him in the building.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Shine Your Light".
  • Bad Santa: Lenny, who shows up wasted at the bar with a girl who is "definitely not Mrs. Claus" and provokes Jack to fighting him after suggesting that he is coming for Linda next.
  • Big Damn Fire Exit: Played literally, then subverted at the end of the film when it is discovered that the one way out has become fully engulfed, trapping Jack irrevocably in the building.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jack is unsuccessful escaping and dies in the building, as the only possible exit out of the burning grain elevator turns out to be completely engulfed in flames. Jack radios this to Mike and insists he calls off the other firefighters, who evacuate. Despite this, he has built his life to saving people and managed to save one last person in the building he died in. Many people honored his sacrifice.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Jack after the elevator collapse sends him tumbling several stories down.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Jack and Linda's wedding and the baptism of their first child. Played for Laughs with the mock confessional (see Initiation Ceremony below).
  • Death by Flashback: The entire film.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Mike, after emotions come to a head in the house following Dennis' death.
  • Drinking Contest: Linda challenges Jack and Tommy to chug a beer, the loser of which has to strip naked and run around the bar. Linda says clearly that the loser is the "last to empty their glass". Upon "go", Linda pours hers into another glass and therefore wins; Tommy loses after he reacts in disbelief while Jack quickly downs his.
  • Emergency Services
  • Empathic Environment: Gets worse with every fire shown. During Jack's first fire, the weather is mostly sunny, with cheerful music playing in the background. The final two fires and the one Jack is trying to escape from are at night, and the last one before the resolution takes place during a snowstorm.
  • Ending Memorial Service: Mike delivers Jack's eulogy.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Jack has Mike call off the others after he sees his death as inevitable and that the rest of his crew are putting themselves at risk with no hope of reaching him in time.
  • Facial Horror: Firefighter Tommy Drake's face is severely burned after a steam pipe ruptures next to him and he has to get skin grafts. He is afraid to let his children see him and Jack's son is shaken up after he hears about it at school.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Played literally with Jack and Lenny, as they save the girl in the apartment during the blizzard.
  • Foreshadowing: Several instances, but in particular Dennis saying "I'm getting too old for this shit" moments before he is killed after the roof of a wildly burning building collapses underneath him. Jack utters the same line in the opening scene as he is looking for survivors.
  • Grave Clouds: Dennis' funeral.
  • Happily Married / Good Parents: Jack and Linda, though obviously not without tension at times, especially given the danger of Jack's occupation.
  • Happy Birthday to You!: They actually sing it at Katie's birthday party.
  • The Hero Dies: Jack himself at the end.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: Natch. The movie opens with them, but Book Ends is averted when the fire crew is unable to rescue Jack, who dies in the burning grain elevator.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Jack is the only one who has one of these in the film, as Dennis' death was in a vacant building, and there were no victims in the plant where Tommy got blasted with steam.
  • How We Got Here
  • Initiation Ceremony: Jack gets chastised on his first day at work for being late by a seemingly-Drunk Captain Mike Kennedy, who then stands up to show that he is not wearing pants, and is then taken to a mock confessional set up by the other firefighters with Lenny Richter as the "priest". The process is repeated for another new firefighter later on, with Mike letting the rookie in on the joke to turn the tables on Lenny by claiming to be gay.
  • Jerkass: Lenny, especially to rookie firefighters.
    • Also, when the firehouse is in mourning over Dennis' recent death, Lenny suggests that it was Dennis' own fault, provoking turmoil in the house, though it is clear that Lenny is mourning him, too.
    • Gains respect for Jack, though, as he goes in to save him and the girl he found trapped in the blazing apartment.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: As abrasive as Lenny is, he's nevertheless devoted to his job and his fellow firefighters. While trying to rescue Jack, Lenny's circular saw fails, prompting him to try to break through steel with his bare (well, actually gloved) hands while shouting for someone to get him another saw.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Dennis', and later Jack's. In the film commentary it is noted that hundreds of actual firefighters came from all over the country to participate in these sequences. This is also Truth in Television; a real firefighter's funeral procession consists of representatives from fire departments across the country (and depending on the magnitude of the tragedy, from around the world.)
  • Meet Cute: Jack and Linda, at the supermarket.
  • Practical Joke: Someone (probably Lenny, see below) stuffs a live goose inside Jack's locker. He gets quite a surprise when he opens it (and one hell of a mess to clean up later).
    • Tommy Drake, with Jack present, giving Lenny some of his own medicine by shoving a flaming newspaper into his bathroom stall. More Hilarity Ensues when he tries to put the fire out with his pants down.
  • Rank Up: Captain Kennedy gets promoted to Battalion Chief, then Deputy Chief over the course of the story.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The framing fire at the grain elevator was heavily based off of the 1999 Worchester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire. In that fire, five alarms were struck and a search and a 3-person rescue team was sent in to look for the two homeless people squatting inside. They confronted an absolute labyrinth of office cubicles, walls, insulation basically made of accelerant, and a multistory building with no windows. During the search, they got lost in the building, and another 3-person rescue team was sent in to find them. All six firefighters perished when the building collapsed before anyone could get to them, mirroring Jack's fate in the movie. The homeless people they were sent in to search for? They evacuated as soon as the fire started and didn't tell anyone. The building was well involved by the time smoke started showing. The incident changed fire doctrine worldwide and is precisely why the incident in the movie is Rule of Drama.
  • Rule of Drama: Combines with Artistic License : Fire companies confronting a well involved large structure such as the grain elevator would never send in S&R for exactly the reasons depicted in the movie. Chances are good that everyone in there is dead already, and priority #1 for firefighters is protect your own crew. Jack should never have been in that grain elevator, let alone in there solo.
    • Similarly with the incident that killed Dennis. The doctrine when dealing with abandoned structures with nobody in them is "surround and drown" - stand back and just pour tons of water on the fire from aerials and attack lines as soon as it shows itself. "Let it burn" is almost precisely what real firefighters would do: "save little, risk little." The Battalion Chief that put the company on the roof committed a nuclear FUBAR - the sort of thing that gets Battalion Chiefs fired or demoted. No coincidence that not long after that fire, Mike Kennedy is promoted to Battalion Chief.
  • Shown Their Work: Generally a far more accurate portrayal of the life of a firefighter then the similar movie Backdraft, including the seemingly pointless deaths and maimings in the line of duty, and showing a wider variety of the calls that a firefighter must respond to.
  • Suddenly Sober: Immediately after Mike pulls Jack (who is drowning his sorrows) out of the bar for fighting with Lenny, he takes him for coffee and discusses his career path with him.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Jack dying in the Grain Elevator Fire depicted in the film is the reason real fire departments will not send personnel into a building with flames shooting out like that. The single most important people to save are the firefighters, considering that it can take months to train a single fire fighter in basic fire fighting techniques, and not all of the people who sign up complete their training. Even in a department of ~1800 fire fighters, losing just one is a major blow. Not to mention losing one needlessly trying to save someone who may already be dead by the time you arrive on scene. Hollywood may depict Fire Fighters as miracle workers who can pluck anyone from a burning building and make it out seconds before the places collapses, but real Fire Fighters are a highly trained bunch that are always understaffed, exhausted, and working in one of the most dangerous professions in the world.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: The firefighters frequently prank and insult eachother, and Jack and Lenny almost come to blows once while off-duty. Each of them is willing to risk death or disfiguring injury for the others.