Film Review: Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit

Slickly produced, Tribeca Film Fest Audience Award-winning doc about some impressive men on the front lines of Detroit’s daunting battle against the city’s fire epidemic and general urban blight benefits mightily from the appeal of key subj

Burn, a documentary about Detroit’s urban decay especially as a result of fires both accidental and the result of arson, puts across a strong message that much more than water is needed to fight so much devastation. By way of their participation, two of the film’s major backers—MSA: The Safety Company and General Motors—provide hints of some solutions that the film cries out for: better firefighting gear, equipment and vehicles that the engine houses desperately need.

The filmmakers clearly want to reach audiences, in spite of the many shots showing streets of urban decay and their depressing rows of burned-out, abandoned or foreclosed homes that have become emblematic of the once-thriving city. Thus, they fire up the doc with many scenes comprising on-site footage of raging fires and the brave men who so valiantly fight them.

But what gives Burn its heart and interest (at least for more demanding audiences) are key firefighting personalities profiled throughout. These include the Detroit Fire Department’s newly appointed executive fire commissioner Donald Austin, a confirmed bachelor imported from similar work in Los Angeles who, burdened as an “outsider” with only an administrative background, uses tough love, candor and innate leadership gifts in dealing with the firemen, the unions and the overall Detroit problem.

Also featured is thirty-something Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, a former ten-year veteran of the force who has been left mostly paralyzed after chunks of a collapsing building fell on him as he fought its raging fire. In addition to presenting the once-active sports and motorcycle enthusiast bravely dealing with his challenging “day-to-day”—supported by a loving wife and his own positive outlook—Burn also has footage of the horrifying collapse that nearly took Doogie’s life but didn’t spare him use of his legs.

In showing this footage, the doc makes clear that the Detroit firefighters (at least in Doogie’s station) had a controversial strategy of “interior attacks”—fighting fires from within buildings in addition to the more common approach of exterior, “surround and drown” firefighting that has men hosing water from the outside. Sadly, Doogie was in the wrong place at the wrong time when that wall crashed down on him.

Another of the doc’s key figures is good-natured old-timer Dave Parnell, the 33-year Detroit Fire Department veteran who worked as a field engine operator driving the rigs and managing their hoses. The film follows Dave over several years up through to his recent retirement as a devoted, loving husband and regular churchgoer who has also stayed faithful to his neighborhood, even as it too is threatened by the spreading decay. Tragedy hits, but Dave never loses his faith or love of the force that has been his family for so long.

Burn is not just a celebration of these wonderful, involving fighters of fires and so much more that threatens survival. It is also a tribute to the decent working class and firefighters everywhere who impact so many lives. The doc also conveys the rewards of the deep brotherhood that binds and sustains these men as it sends a message of the importance of love, caring and friendships that strengthen all lives.

But Burn also suffers from what might now be called the Superstorm Sandy syndrome, wherein the initial sanction of New York City’s annual runners’ marathon—scheduled almost contemporaneous with the storm’s rage and destruction in the area—remained in place until that light-bulb moment when it was deemed inappropriate and finally cancelled. Burn unfortunately overlays its many scenes of horrendous fires with pummeling rock ’n’ roll, almost as if glorifying these awful events. The fires shown are so very tragic in many ways, yet the accompanying music has an entirely different connotation. This odd juxtaposition comes across as cheesy and just plain disrespectful or, in a more charitable sense, maybe just ill-advised. But, of course, there are audiences to please.