Thursday, November 8, 2012


For a few disheartening minutes, grim statistics and drive-by shots of Detroit’s abandoned buildings make this look like another ruin-porn documentary about the stalled-out Motor City. But Burn turns a fresh lens on a subject that already feels a little burned-out, looking at the devastation of Detroit through the eyes of firefighters who put their lives on the line to save it.

The fires that plague Detroit—more than in any other city at about 30 a day—are both a result and a cause of the mass exodus that has left it hollowed out, its current population (about 700,000) less than half what it was in 1950. The self-styled Detroit Fire Department Engine 50 “cowboys” featured here are a stand-up symbol of the city’s still-beating blue-collar heart, and the trials they endure and the equipment they patch together “with bubble gum and tape,” as one firefighter puts it, are pungent examples of the dysfunction that tests the patience of those who refuse to abandon their city.

When I was growing up there in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Detroit was full of immigrants and first-generation Americans—black people fleeing the apartheid South; Eastern Europeans from Poland and Romania and Lithuania and Latvia; Western Europeans from Italy and Greece and England and Ireland; Arabs and others from the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands with no fancy connections or college degrees found the American Dream they sought in the city, buying homes and sending kids to college by working blue-collar or pink-collar jobs.

But the city’s not so welcoming to the beleaguered brotherhood of Engine 50. Starting off at about $30,000 a year and going years without a raise, while pensions and other benefits are cut, most of the men work a second job to get by. Meanwhile, failing or missing equipment makes all the usual perils of firefighting that much more dangerous, as do the long hours and often sleepless nights put in by overstretched firefighters (the city has only about half as many now as it did in 1950, a title card tells us, though there are significantly more fires now.)

What’s more, the social contract they live by—take care of each other, give back to your city—is often broken by the people they serve. The fires they risk their lives to fight are usually set on purpose, often just for fun. “There’s arson for profit, there’s arson for revenge, and then there’s arson just for kicks,” says Captain Doughterty. Another firefighter, discussing the increase in calls in the summer when school is out, smiles ruefully as he says: “A dollar of gas is still cheaper than a movie ticket.”

Scenes flow into one another and begin and end somewhat randomly, often lasting a little too long, but co-directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez have a good feel for the rhythms of everyday life, capturing the teasing intimacy inside the firehouse when the men are between calls and peppering in scenes of life going on around the city. They also get good access when the men go to work, following right behind as they kick down doors or chop through roofs to let out waves of flame or dense smoke and capturing vivid footage of survivors, including a puppy stunned by smoke that staggers to its feet only to fall over again. They even attend the funeral of one little girl who didn’t make it, trapped in an upper floor of a house when the firefighters arrived—in time to save her but deprived of the equipment they needed to do the job. And they provide a bit of perspective on the Fire Department’s strategy in interviews with Donald Austin, an executive commissioner who seems half-defeated from the start by the department’s many problems but comes up with a novel directive that the firefighters come to appreciate.

But mainly, the filmmakers focus on those firefighters, especially a Craig Dougherty, a font of pithy comments (“That right there, times 30 a night, times 30 years, is how you burn a city down. One at a time,” he tells the camera after one fire) who starts out as a captain and gets promoted to chief; Dave Parnell, a sweet-natured 40-year veteran who loses his beloved wife and retires during the course of the shoot, worrying all the while about what he’ll do without his two anchors; and Brendan Milewski, a rookie who was paralyzed from the bellybutton down while fighting a fire, who adjusts to life on disability and works hard on his rehab, determined to regain whatever independence he can.

These guys love their job and each other, so this is not a depressing movie. But if it doesn’t break your heart at least, once you may need a defibrillator.

Written for The L Magazine

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