Ladder 49 starts out trying to convince viewers it's not a Hollywood film about firefighters. And it almost succeeds.
The opening images are grainy, choppy news like footage of a building burning and emergency crews arriving.
But then the picture becomes too glossy and John Travolta shows up.
Travolta plays Captain Mike Kennedy of Ladder 49. His opening scene has him sitting at a desk with an amber coloured alcohol beverage in his hand and cigar burning while he's fast asleep.
In this movie though, Travolta is not the main character. The film is about Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) and it follows him through his career - starting as a bright young rookie - to years down the road when he starts to question his career.
Morrison's life is told through a series of flashbacks as he is trapped in a burning apartment building.
Phoenix is convincing because he wears his heart on his face. When Morrison first appears as a rookie at the fire hall his enthusiasm and love for his job is clear. He looks happy and he wants to go fight fires. Over the years, as he watches friends die and he fights fires that don't end well his face changes. He looks bitter, and his reaction to the people around him is bitter. He begins to distance himself from the other characters in the movie and the audience feels his withdrawal.
Travolta is not quite believable as a serious and wise fire chief because he is just too goofy. He seems to be on the verge of laughter throughout.
The movie really wants to portray firefighters as regular people. Morrison has a family and a wife and a regular house. He drives a regular truck and goes out with his friends to a regular bar.However, there are some irregularities. Do firefighters really grocery shop in their fire fighting pants?
And the whole movie plot is based on a nearly impossible premise. Morrison gets trapped in the building after his fellow firefighters leave him alone while they carry out an injured man. Firefighters operate under a two-in, two-out buddy system. And Morrison no longer has his oxygen tank or helmet, and he's in a burning and exploding building. Toxic fumes and smoke inhalation anyone?
Implausible plots aside, the film is a sobering reminder that firefighters are real people who put their life on the line every time the fire alarm goes. If anything, the movie should encourage viewers to thank the next firefighter they see.