The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 brought firefighters a long-overdue surge in appreciation and acknowledgement. As heroes of the moment, firefighters (and, to a lesser extent, Dalmatians) basked in the kind of adulation usually reserved for, say, athletes. Then America energetically re-embraced its obsession with the most ephemeral aspects of celebrity, making the stilted new firefighter drama Ladder 49 feel like a peculiar throwback. The film's painful earnestness hearkens back to the moments immediately following Sept. 11, when people felt at least a tiny bit guilty about their superficiality. Ladder 49 seems not to realize that its brief cultural window slammed shut while it was still in pre-production.
In a performance revealing hitherto-untapped reservoirs of stiffness, Joaquin Phoenix stars as a nice young man who gets a job as a firefighter. The film opens with him battling a vicious fire, then flashes back to his days as a naïve rookie and follows him through hazing, marriage, fatherhood, and the trauma of watching his coworkers die or get seriously injured in the line of duty.
It all feels numbingly familiar, which seems perverse, given how few movies about firefighters get made. Where good movies can make the familiar seem novel, movies like Ladder 49 make the novel seem depressingly mundane. The firefighting scenes convey little sense of danger or urgency, the supporting characters barely register, and the film's depiction of testosterone-fueled drinking, bonding, hijinks, and hazing—some of it involving a goose placed in a locker—makes the firehouse look like an unusually heroic fraternity. In a shrill attempt to overcompensate for the film's shortcomings, William Ross' hyperbolic score does the audience's work for it, cheering heroism, guffawing during lighthearted moments, and getting all misty-eyed during the tender and tragic scenes. Ladder 49 is well-intentioned to a fault, but firefighters deserve a better movie.