Burn: Film Review
Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez's harrowing documentary chronicles the struggles of Detroit firefighters.
There must not be too many happy faces at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce these days. Arriving shortly on the heels of the scathing documentary Detropia is Burn, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s film detailing the heroic efforts of Detroit firefighters to combat the rising tide of conflagrations plaguing the troubled metropolis.
The documentary, winner of the Audience Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and subtitled One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, chronicles the year-long efforts of Engine Company 50. Located on the city’s east side, the beleaguered company faces daunting odds, as the film makes clear via an array of scary statistics.
The once vibrant city is now home to 80,000 vacant structures, with an average of 30 fires, many of them arson-related, taking place every day. The shattered city economy has resulted in devastating cutbacks relating to equipment and services, with the starting salary for a firefighter being a mere $30,000. Indeed, one of the film’s more vivid scenes depicts the city’s new fire commissioner, former veteran Los Angeles Fire Department head Donald Austin, cleaning his own office because of a lack of janitorial services.
The film also explores Austin’s controversial policy of letting abandoned buildings simply burn to the ground, but the decision seems a reasonable one considering the considerable risks with which his men are forced to contend.
Although featuring plenty of harrowing sequences of actual firefighting that register with a visceral impact, the film’s chief emotional power stems from its portraits of several individuals, including an older, recently widowed firefighter reluctantly facing retirement and a 30-year-old firefighter paralyzed below the waist as a result of a devastating injury suffered on the job.
Despite the sobering situations the film deals with, it nonetheless manages to deliver a hopeful message, thanks to the indomitable spirit and good humor exhibited by its brave subjects.
Directors/producers: Tom Putnam, Brenna Sanchez.
Executive producers: Denis Leary, Jim Serpico.
Directors of photography: Mark Eaton, Nicola B. Marsh, Matt Pappas.
Editors: Kevin Jones, Morgan Stiff, Miranda Yousef.
Composers: BC Smith, Alessandro Cortini.
Not rated, 86 min.