American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The best compliment I can pay "Ladder 49" is to say that it left me feeling thoughtful and sad. I was surprised it had such an effect. I walked in expecting an action picture with heroic firemen charging into burning buildings for last-minute rescues. "Ladder 49" has the heroes and the fires and the rescues, but it's not really about them. It's about character, and about the kind of man who risks his life for a living. And it's about work, about what kind of a job it is to be a fireman.
The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison, a fireman assigned to search and rescue. John Travolta plays Kennedy, his chief. The other guys at the firehouse include Tommy (Morris Chestnut), Don (Kevin Daniels), Lenny (Robert Patrick) and Frank (Kevin Chapman).
We see them in action before we really meet them. A warehouse is on fire, and people are trapped on the 12th floor. There's grain dust in the building that could explode at any moment. Jack and his team charge into the building, and Jack finds a survivor on the 12th floor -- which is too high for the cherry-pickers or ladders to reach. "Stick with me. I'll take care of you," he tells the guy, and lowers him out a window on a rope until firemen below can grab him, calm his panic and return him safe to earth.
The grain dust blows. Jack falls through a hole in the center of the building and lands a few floors below, stunned, half-buried by debris. Eventually he regains consciousness, and is able to radio Travolta, who coordinates the rescue effort. It is clear that there's a limited window of opportunity to save Jack before the building kills him.