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Real-life Detroit doesn’t need killers on the lam to be a dangerous place in which to live and work. In Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez’s documentary Burn, the directors (and exec producer Denis Leary) turn the spotlight on the city’s firefighters, who battle not only everyday backdrafts but also a bureaucracy whose pockets are empty and arsonists with too much time on their hands. In a year in which the doc Detropia is garnering all the attention for its examination of the steady ruination of the city, Burn’s focus on one aspect of Detroit’s downfall makes it the superior film.
Burn captures the experiences and stories of the firemen (alas, there are no women) of a single station for a year. “I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen,” the opening voiceover of about-to-retire Dave Parnell intones, and for the next nearly hour and a half, the doc presents some of those harrowing sights. According to the film, Detroit has more fires than any U.S. city, along with an unemployment rate of 29 percent and innumerable residents fleeing if they are able. According to narration by an unnamed firefighter, “Certain areas…look like bombs hit them.” Ample footage of abandoned, graffiti-covered homes backs that up.
Along with the expected scenes of alarms going off and flame-engulfed buildings, Burn weaves in the personal stories of a few firemen. Parnell’s frames the film—though you worry when, at the beginning, it’s noted that he’s got only eight months until retirement—but the narrative also includes the tragedy of Doogie Milewski, one of the youngest crew members who became paralyzed when a brick building partially collapsed, pinning several firefighters who were still outside. We accompany him through his therapy, which eventually allows him to drive, and the still-present frustrations that stem from his inability to be the athletic guy he once was.
Burn also touches on red-tape troubles, including the hiring of a new commissioner, Donald Austin, who was born in Detroit but cut his teeth in Los Angeles. The station’s fire chief is initially skeptical, calling Austin a “Hollywood commissioner,” and he doesn’t make fast friends—nor does he want to, even though Austin insists during his tough-love speech to a group that he’s on their side. The problem is trying to work within the budgetary confines of a city that’s nearly bankrupt, leaving little money for upgrades, equipment repair, or hiring, even though the starting salary for a firefighter is a measly $30,000. (The doc notes that many moonlight to survive.) Austin’s suggested methods, such as letting abandoned buildings burn, aren’t popular, but as he notes, “I ain’t doing as the Romans.”
Beyond Milewski’s story, other tragedies are noted, including the death of a 3-year-old due to an inexperienced driver and faulty equipment, which naturally spurs outrage. Burn caps off somewhat incongruously, with suddenly upbeat music and footage of kids playing in fountains. This optimism for the city isn’t what you take away from the film, however. Rather, it’s the steeliness and selflessness of the people who help protect it. As one fireman says, “We fight fires with balls.”