Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
“I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen in 32 years of firefighting.” Those words from Detroit fireman Dave Parnell open Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s bracing documentary Burn, subtitled “One year on the front lines of the battle to save Detroit.” It captures a city in crisis, where the population has dropped by two-thirds since the industrial heyday of the 1950s, leaving a place that is, in one observer’s words, like “Katrina without the hurricane.” Poverty is at 33%; unemployment hovers around 39%. Houses are trashed and abandoned, and often those houses go up in flames. The Detroit Fire Department gets about 30,000 fire calls per year, and most of them are arson—the firefighters take them all on, though they have about half as many firefighters as in the fifties, when they fought about half as many fires.
Putnam and Sanchez mostly spend their year with members of Engine Company No. 50 on Detroit’s crime-ridden east side, under the command of captain Craig Dougherty. Changes will come over the course of that year: Dougherty will get promoted to chief, longtime FEO Dave Parnell will retire, and a controversial new fire commissioner, Donald Austin, will come in from Los Angeles, with the goal of keeping the department within an ever-shrinking budget, in spite of its dire need for more rigs, better equipment, and more manpower—or at least a better wage for its current staff (most, the filmmakers discover, have second jobs). They also include the story of Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, a member of the company who was caught in a building collapse that left him paralyzed (other men on the call weren’t so lucky), and in a state of uncertainty, because firefighting was all he’s ever done, and all he ever wanted to do.
The filmmakers deftly rotate these personal stories and private moments with remarkable on-the-fly footage of the company on the job. That footage is astonishing; their cameras get up close to the action, sometimes from within the helmets of the firefighters themselves, resulting in sequences visceral and immediate. Establishing shots are done with smooth, gliding cameras, while editing is jazzy and forceful; the fire calls are chopped into fast-paced, hyper-charged montages, scored with dirty rock and soul.
Burn is not all flash, though. The personalities contained within it are allowed to flourish, so that we come away with a sense of Milewski’s aimlessness (and Parnell’s, for that matter), of Dougherty’s shifting sense of responsibility, of Austin’s frustration over the impossibility of his task. The picture moves—it’s got a frisky, pulsing heartbeat—but they know when to take a breath for effect, as when they stop the film to observe, in detail, Doogie’s painstaking process of simply getting from his wheelchair into this truck.
The picture could have probably done with a few more of those sustained beats (we never do get a real sense of exactly what happened with regards to a death that becomes a political football), but what the filmmakers captured over the course of that year is remarkable: a story of pride in the face of hopelessness, bonding in the face of troubles, exhilaration in the face of certain death. All of those conflicting concerns are present throughout Burn, and particularly in the quietly powerful closing shots. This is a sharp, intense, well-executed film.