- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Director Jay Russell had more than just the box-office gods to please while filming “Ladder 49.”

With so few firefighter dramas committed to film, he understood that the real men and women who run into, not out of, burning buildings would be first in line at movie theaters.

“We knew our toughest critics would be the firefighters themselves,” says Mr. Russell, whose uncle and a high school buddy each served more than 20 years in the profession.

“Ladder 49,” filmed and set in Baltimore, casts a glowing light on the lives of firefighters, who took on superhero status after their collective heroics in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks three years ago.

“Is it a tribute to the firefighters of 9/11? Of course it is, but it’s a tribute to the firefighter of 9/10 and 9/13 too,” says Mr. Russell, who visited the District along with several “Ladder” cast members to promote the film earlier this week.

“There isn’t a firefighter I ever met who wouldn’t have charged up those steps [in the World Trade Center buildings] that day,” he says.

“Ladder 49” follows a young firefighter named Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) as he grows from a fumbling rookie to a leader in a blue-collar Baltimore firehouse. John Travolta co-stars in a less flashy role as Chief Kennedy, Mr. Phoenix’s supervisor, and the respectable cast also includes Robert Patrick (of “T2 3D: Battle Across Time” fame), Morris Chestnut (“Boyz N the Hood,” “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid”) and Jacinda Barrett ( from MTV’s 1995 cast of “The Real World” and 2003’s “The Human Stain”).

The film teeters toward hagiography in its reverence for its subject matter, an understandable path given its proximity to September 11. That awful day, however, is the subtext provided by the audience; the film (thankfully) doesn’t trot out any terrorism subplots.

Movies about heroes, though, have always been in fashion. And judging from the recent successes of crime-fighting projects on both the big and small screens, Hollywood probably would shut down if it were forced suddenly to stop creating dramas around the inner workings of law enforcement.

Still, the industry is more likely these days to produce a Western than a firefighter yarn.

Mr. Russell thinks he knows why.

“These things are really hard to make on a physical level,” says the director, who sat down with Ron Howard — who filmed the last major movie on the subject, “Backdraft,” in 1991.

“What he said was true back when he made ‘Backdraft,’ and it’s still true today,” says Mr. Russell, whose previous films include 2000’s “My Dog Skip” and 2002’s “Tuck Everlasting.”

“CGI fire doesn’t look right. It’s too random, too erratic. Therefore, you have to use real fire. It’s hard to control, especially if you want really big fires.”

Keeping that in mind, Mr. Russell asked his cast to train at an actual firefighting academy in Baltimore. It wasn’t the first time perfectly coifed actors dirtied themselves to prepare for a part.

With “Ladder 49,” however, the goal wasn’t just authenticity. The actors were trained to handle an emergency in case a real fire broke out on the set.

“After the official fire-academy training, they went out on real runs,” Mr. Russell says.

In a case of life imitating art, one cast member (whom Mr. Russell did not identify) actually pulled a woman from a burning house.

“They were getting into it a little too much,” Mr. Russell adds. He also cites increasing insurance concerns from the movie studio as forcing an abrupt end to the training.

On a lighter note, the producers may also have blanched over some of the real-life pranks that spring up in the average firehouse.

Mr. Patrick, for instance, discovered firsthand the “abrasive” black humor that permeates the staff at the Baltimore firehouse where the cast worked on the film.

“Some of the jokes we heard in Baltimore were a little too X-rated,” Mr. Patrick says.

All the laughter, he suggests, comes with a purpose.

“There’s a constant testing; judging is a good word,” Mr. Patrick says. “You gotta kind of know: Is a guy gonna crack under pressure?”

Opening tomorrow, “Ladder 49” arrives more than three years after firefighter worship came into vogue. Mr. Russell, however, fears that sentiment is waning already.

“What I find amazing, and maybe a little depressing, is that it’s beginning to be taken for granted again,” Mr. Russell says of the profession.

“They’re humble, quiet people, and people tend to ignore humble, quiet people,” he says.

Many firefighters, he says, seemed embarrassed by the accolades heaped upon them after the terrorist attacks, and he hopes they won’t find his film an awkward salute.

Yet, Mr. Russell says, “I think an appreciation, a thank-you, they wouldn’t mind.”

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