Ladder 49 (5/10)

by Tony Medley

In 1946, Lajos Egri wrote the seminal work on dramatic writing, called, not surprisingly, The Art of Dramatic Writing. In it, he laid down the immutable rule that “Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.” And what’s a premise? Egri quotes Webster’s Dictionary, “A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.” For instance, the premise of Romeo and Juliet is that “great love survives even death.” The premise of Tennessee Williams’ classic, Sweet Bird of Youth is “Ruthless ambition leads to destruction.”

Ladder 49 violates Egri’s first rule. It’s certainly well acted. It’s got a lot of action. It’s realistic. But the only idea of the film is that “firefighters are dedicated and brave.” If that’s a premise, it’s too flimsy to capture and sustain enough interest to qualify as memorable entertainment.

We follow Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) from rookie to veteran fire fighter. He’s got a beautiful, loving wife, Linda (Jacinda Barrett) whom he apparently marries after only a couple of dates (What, in 115 minutes, they didn’t have time to develop a courtship that could have allowed them to get married after an appropriate time of getting to know one another?), two children, a likeable captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and a bunch of likeable fellow fire-fighters.

Phoenix did his homework for this movie. He joined the Baltimore Fire Academy as a student for six weeks. He was so proficient that the people with whom he was training said he could hold down a job as a real firefighter any time he wanted. He did almost 100% of his own stunts, including rappelling off the top of a 15-story building.

Give Director Jay Russell credit, too, because the fires are all real fires. There’s none of that CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) nonsense here. The fires are real and they are hot. Phoenix actually caught on fire during the filming when a flying ember hit him and his fire suit started going up in flames.

The film expertly captures the danger and violence of fighting a fire through the real fires and the sounds of fire burning and exploding.

As a documentary about the life of a firefighter, it is interesting. But as a 115-minute movie? Oh, we care about Jack, and we care about his loving wife, Linda. He was lucky that the Hollywood instant love worked out with this woman. We don’t really get to know Captain Mike and the rest of the guys to care much about them.

I also didn’t like the flashback method of making this movie. Right at the outset Jack is put in jeopardy and then we’re flashed back to episodes from his first day as a rookie bringing us up to where the movie starts. Talk about killing suspense!

The movie is full of emotion. But, as Egri wrote, “No emotion ever made, or ever will make, a good play...Love, hate, any basic emotion, is merely an emotion. It may revolve around itself, destroying, building—and getting nowhere.”

So the firefighting is realistic and the players are emotional, but its ultimate weakness is that it violates the first rule of dramatic writing; there’s no clear premise.

September 28, 2004

The End