Ask any 5-year-old boy what he wants to be when he grows up and he'll likely say, "A firefighter!" Inevitably, there's something appealing about the sirens, flashing lights and brave actions of these everyday heroes.
Maybe it's those same factors that make Ladder 49 an undeniably compelling movie.
As chief of the crew, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) does more than fight fires. He's a father figure who mentors rookies like Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix). He keeps flaring tempers in check when tensions run high and pumps up morale when things go wrong.
Still, Jack is a little apprehensive about the Chief's leadership abilities when he meets him for the first time. Sipping liquor and slurring his words, the half-clad captain doesn't initially inspire confidence.
And unfortunately, Mike isn't the only one who imbibes. When these men aren't on duty dousing flames, they're knocking back the booze at the local pub. Rather than developing individual characters with a variety of standards, the movie broadly portrays the men as a group who drink heavily as a way to relax after a hard day's work. Even more worrisome is the constant depiction of alcohol at other social events and Jack's admission to his anxious wife that he drove home after drinking.
Luckily, clear heads prevail when these guys are on task. United by an attitude of "one for all and all for one," they rush into blazing, smoke-filled buildings, trusting their lives to one another, in order to save those inside. Although most are concerned husbands and fathers, they have a bond, forged by the stresses of their job, that sometimes supersedes even their relationships at home.
That reliance is tested the day the crew is called to a fire at a 20-story building in the core of Baltimore. As the inferno spreads, the floor crumbles below Jack, leaving him trapped inside. While he waits for his fellow firefighters to free him, the now-seasoned professional remembers the events of his past including a premarital sexual encounter, his marriage to Linda (Jacinda Barrett) in their local church and the births of their children (Spencer Berglund, Brooke Hamlin).
When considering this film for family viewing, parents may question the necessity of the firemen's after-hours antics and their use of profanities (including a sexual expletive). However, after watching criminal-types repeatedly glorified on the big screen, the every day sacrifices of these men and their families may spark discussions about the meaning of real heroism. It may also give adults and older teens a new appreciation for the uncommon courage of men (and women) who are ready to step up on the truck when a call comes in.