BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit is the new documentary by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez that focuses mainly on one fire station in Detroit as well as on the city’s new fire chief. The movie is for those who have seen Scary Movie 4 and thought that the after and before pictures of Detroit under attack by Martians was a joke. Apparently, it’s not. Detroit has the most fires per capita in the U.S. and things don’t look like they are going to get better any time soon.
The movie holds your attention and there are moving moments as well as some strong character studies of a young fire fighter now confined to a wheelchair and who will never fight fires again and an old timer who is going to retire at the end of the movie. There’s also an interesting character study of Donald Austin, the Executive Fire Commissioner: he comes across as rather foolish and in over his head and one wonders if he would have agreed to be in the movie if he had realized what the results would have been. And it’s all set against some harrowing scenes of fires blazing away and men putting themselves in harms way.
But in the end, it feels as something is missing that prevents it from being more than it is. In many ways, it feels like a movie searching for a message or focus, caught between being a character study of first responders and a study of what exactly is wrong with the fire department in Detroit. And this rock and hard place is understandable. No matter how much the filmmakers may have wanted it to be only a character study, it’s impossible for them to get away from the serious issues facing Detroit. It just keeps sticking its ugly head in.
And Detroit is in trouble. Besides the fire per capita issue, Detroit has lost a third or more of its population; there are 80,000 abandoned buildings; fire equipment is in need of repair and there’s no money to keep them from constantly breaking down or for purchasing new ones; and the fire fighters have to take second jobs just to make ends meet. As the filmmakers show the city, it looks like the perfect location for someone wanting to make a movie about a post-apocalypse America.
And this is where the movie really gets frustrating as it slowly, but irretrievably, becomes a film about a problem that has no solution. The fire fighters blame the city and government and the Fire Chief blames the fire fighters. But what is really odd here is that the filmmakers, for whatever reason, never ask the Mayor, the City Council, the local media, the state government, any experts, anybody else at all about what is really going on. It just seems odd that if that if almost half of the movie is going to be about Detroit falling apart and how handicapped the fire department is, that the filmmakers wouldn’t really go for it. Instead it comes across more as a documentary that, as a friend of mine says, just doesn’t have enough meat to it.
The film is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year. The final section is fall. This section is filled with upbeat images of hope and people finding new possibilities in their futures. But it’s too late and to be ruthlessly honest, it’s a bunch of hokum. Nothing’s changed. The problems are still there looming as large as they were before. It may say fall in the subtitles, but on screen, it’s basically no different than the winter the whole story started with. The ending here doesn’t feel like a reflection of everything the documentary has said before. It feels more like an ending based on a business decision, something to make the audience feel good when they leave the theater. It may make a difference at the box office, but all it really does is let the causes of Detroit’s problems off the hook—the last image for the audience is not “something must be done”; instead, it’s more of, “yes, it’s horrible, but we’re the people and we’ll get by”.