Detroit has just over a sixth of Los Angeles’ population but nearly three times as many fires. On average, thirty buildings ignite every day. For a city of seven hundred thousand-some people with dwindling resources that is a whole lot of alarms. This is the situation faced by a veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, who returns to his native Detroit, hoping to whip the beleaguered organization into shape. However, the city’s extreme dysfunction might be insurmountable. At least that is the impression viewers often glean from Tom Putnam & Brenna Sanchez’s Burn (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
The numbers are staggering. When newly appointed Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin assumes his new position there are 800,000 abandoned structures in Detroit—and Engine Company 50 has more than their fair share. Such ghost buildings are particularly susceptible to accidental combustion, also attracting bored firebugs like a magnet. Facing budget cuts, Austin sets a controversial new policy: if responding firefighters determine an abandoned structure is empty and not a threat to other occupied buildings, they should let it burn.
Through three primary POV figures, the filmmakers show the audience boots-on-the-ground firefighting from the inside out, as well as the bureaucracy that makes everything harder. Two are exactly the sort of sympathetic individuals one would expect. Dave Parnell is a veteran field engine operator on the brink of retirement. A rarity amongst his colleagues, he actually lives in the neighborhood they serve. Former firefighter Brendan “Doogie” Milewski is also a strong rooting interest, struggling to come to grips with his lower paralysis after a roof collapsed upon him.
Without question though, the film’s greatest surprises come from its third focal character, Commissioner Austin. Although his my-way-or-the-highway style initially alienates firefighters (and most likely audience members), he evolves in interesting ways during his time on the job. He can clearly walk the walk as well as talk the talk and many of his beefs, such as the engine that was destroyed when its driver parked it in front of an approaching train, are hard to debate.
Watching Burn gives one the uneasy feeling that we are seeing the future, given the degree to which the depressionary economic policies that devastated Detroit largely emerged victorious at the polls yesterday. On the other hand, it also shows how far filmmaking technology has evolved. It used to be nearly impossible to replicate the vividness of a large scale conflagration on-screen. Yet, Putnam & Sanchez fully capture the bright yellows and oranges of the lapping flames. It is a sobering warning how far a once prosperous city can fall. While another recent documentary about the Motor City largely misses the obvious lessons, it would be an intriguing companion film to Florent Tillon’s eerie and ruminative Detroit Wild City.
There is indeed a fair amount of Backdraft action in Burn, with an equal or greater amount of time devoted to the consequences of sending out ill-equipped, overworked companies, day after day. Yet, the scenes of the commissioner struggling to lead a skeptical department are arguably Putnam & Sanchez’s biggest scoop. It is also worth noting the filmmakers have pledged to give a portion of the proceeds to executive producer Denis Leary’s Leary Firefighters Foundation.