A must-see movie about public service that is not 'Lincoln'

Watching "Lincoln" is all the rage in Washington for its depiction of the grit and glory behind the politics of emancipation. Behold another film that should be required viewing in the nation's capital: "Burn," an adrenaline-fueled documentary about Detroit firefighters, and an ode to public service.

Beginning a one-week run Friday in AMC theaters in Washington, Chicago and Detroit, "Burn" has plenty to offer: It bears witness to the decimation of a great American city, reflects the post-industrial decline of the middle-class, and tells a story of heroes, particularly one firefighter paralyzed in service to his city.

"Burn" also carries a special lesson to politicians in Washington, where "bureaucrats" and "public servants" have become derogatory terms: Public service is a nobel thing.

Squeezed between the movie's images of infernos and urban ruin  are the public policy musings of $30,000-a-year firefighters -- their salaries frozen for years and their union-negotiated pensions under attack.

"It hurts that we're the scapegoats for the country's financial problems right now," says one unidentifed firefighter at the eastside station profiled by the directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez.

"What I don't get is when did we become the enemy?" said Craig Dougherty, a station captain promoted to chief during the filming.

"The firefighters and the police officers and the teachers -- all the people are are trying to make a difference -- all of a sudden we're just costing too much and there's too much expense out there. And now, God, you'd think you'd want to run away in shame because ... you're a public employee, you're civic employee," Dougherty says.

The film humanizes people who are too often vilified in public policy debates, co-director Sanchez said, mentioning specifically Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's fight against public unions.

"The political conversation in America has redefinded how voters view public servants," she said in a telephone interview. "In Wisconsin, we're no longer looking at them as people. We're looking at them in budget terms."

Sanchez and Putnam said they are not arguing for the status quo. Indeed, the firefighters -- like most other workers in post-industrial America -- are responsible for navigating change as best they can.

"Hey, I think everybody needs to be accountable. Every government and department needs to be accountable for both the work and the budgets they maintain," Sanchez said. "But let's remember the work they do, and who's doing it."

Disclosure: I grew up in the Detroit neighborhood served by Engine Company 50. One of the featured firefighters, Dave Miller, is a family friend who I quoted this summer in an unrelated story about racial politics. The scenes depicting my old neighborhood as a blighted, arson-infested hell hit home.

Early in the flim, Dougherty estimated that an average of 30 fires have struck Detroit each night for 30 years and "that's how you burn a city down: one at a time." In 2010, there were 919 Detroit firefighters, down from 1,800 in 1954, according to the film. In that same period, the per-capita fire count increased by more than 300 percent.

Most fire departments battle blazes from the outside, a practice called "surround and drown." Detroits firefighters are world reknown for their aggressive work to save homes, most of them vacant and the result of arson: They fight "from the inside out," which means they kick down doors and plunge into the pyre.

"I feel like I'm in the burning of Rome sometimes," a firefighter says.

"This has been Katrina without the hurricane," says another.

In one harrowing scene, the men of Engine Company 50 wash blood from a street after a wall collapsed on firefighter Brendan "Doogie" Milewski, leaving him paralyzed.

No wonder these firefighters like to recite the words of 33-year department veteran Dave Parnell: "I wish my mind would forget what my eyes have seen."

Sanchez and Putnam are lobbying for a congressional screening of "Burn." It would do lawmakers a world of good to see what Parnell and his brothers wish to forget.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.