(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reviews by experts offering commentary on a film in their area of expertise. We’re happy to kick it off with a review of Burn by Gary Oldham, a public safety consultant and nationally recognized wildland fire and incident command expert.)
As someone who has spent more than 30 years in public safety, most of which has been in the fire service, I have been anxiously awaiting the chance to see Burn, the highly acclaimed feature documentary on the Detroit Fire Department. Over the years, I’ve suffered through watching inadequate, often completely fabricated portrayals of firefighters on the big screen and on television. Having watched the movie’s progress on its website (detroitfirefilm.org) and on social media, I had high hopes for this film.
Burn is, without a doubt, the best film about firefighting I have ever seen. It’s a movie about a city in decline, with immense challenges. It is an intimate movie about a group of people who are faced with incredible obstacles: declining pay and benefits, a lack of crucial tools (and the tools they have often don’t perform properly), massive budget cuts, and an unbelievable workload. And yet, they willingly put their lives on the line for the people of Detroit every single day.
The film shares personal stories of several characters, including those of Field Equipment Operator Dave Parnell and Firefighter Brendan “Doogie” Milewski. We see where and how Parnell lives in the community he serves, and how he deals with the heartbreaking loss of his wife of 35 years, just a few months before he was set to retire. Milewski became a paraplegic when a brick wall collapsed and crushed him during a fire, and we watch as filmmakers show his day-to-day struggle with physical rehabilitation and daily life chores.
We follow Parnell and his fellow firefighters when they attend the funeral of a little girl who died in a fire. We feel their heartache when they tell mourners that any one of the firefighters would have willingly given his life to save the young child, but that the responsibility for her death was with the city and bad choices by management. These and other poignant scenes are presented at a raw, gritty, brutally honest level that’s rarely seen by the public.
There is no soft selling here, and neither is there any sanitized hero-ization. These are real men and women, wonderful and flawed, doing an incredibly dangerous job with little financial reward, for reasons as different as each of the firefighters. The filmmakers were embedded with the crews of Detroit Fire’s Station 50 for an entire year. There is a lot of dramatic fire footage, including some from newsreels. Most of the live-action footage comes from helmet-mounted cameras worn by the firefighters of Station 50 specifically for this film.
Burn captures the human side of a city in peril. We see the human struggles of the crews of Station 50, people in the department’s training bureau, the Detroit arson squad, and others. We see firsthand how management decisions affected not only the firefighters but the citizens they protect. We watch as a new fire commissioner (the fifth new commissioner during the filming of this movie) makes changes — some of which are welcomed while others are actively resisted. We see and experience the firefighters’ frustrations over incredibly poor working conditions and pay cuts.
Filmmakers also share the story of Detroit, a once great city whose population has plunged from 1.8 million in 1950 to just over 700,000 today. In this once thriving metropolis, literacy is now at 50 percent, and 70 percent of the city’s homicides remain unsolved. More than 70,000 of Detroit’s structures are abandoned and decaying. Each day, 30 of these abandoned structures burn – a huge number for a city of 700,000 people. Los Angeles, a city of more than four million, sees only about 11 structure fires a day. Virtually all of Detroit’s structure fires are the result of arson.
Burn won the Heineken Audience Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. The cinematography, editing, and scoring are top notch. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” ushers in the film’s opening and sets the tone.
Civilians will appreciate the drama and grit in both the fire footage and the personal stories. All firefighters will appreciate Burn’s raw honesty and accuracy. Those who, like me, have worked for reasonably well-funded and well-led departments will shake their heads at the conditions under which Detroit firefighters work.
This film should be required viewing for elected officials across the country. After seeing Burn, officials will have a much better, more accurate picture of the job of firefighters, and the risks they take on a daily basis. Moreover, officials will learn about the very real risk of their city heading down the same path as Detroit in the absence of good stewardship, sound decisions, and without safeguarding the middle class.
When Burn played in Round Rock, Texas (just outside Austin), it was a must-see event for me, as well as other former and current members of the fire service. Like so many showings throughout the country, the show I attended was a sold-out event. Two of the principals featured in the film, recently retired Parnell and medically retired Firefighter Milewski, mingled and conversed with arriving attendees.
After the film was shown, our audience was treated to a Q&A with Parnell and Milewski, along with filmmakers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez. In an audience almost entirely comprised of firefighters and their families, questions were pointed and direct, as were the answers. Perhaps the most poignant answer came from Milewski.
An audience member asked both firefighters what they might have done differently in their careers if they could do them over. Parnell gave a thoughtful, eloquent, and somewhat lengthy answer. However, Milewski, answering from the wheelchair to which he has been confined since being crushed under falling rubble, answered simply: “I would have run faster.”
Burn is not rated; runtime 85 min.; directed by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez; executive produced by Denis Leary, Morgan Neville and Jim Serpico; now playing in select theaters.