A Must-See Movie About Public Service That Is Not Named '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 on 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 noble 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 unidentified 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 who 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 a civic employee," Dougherty says.

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

"The political conversation in America has redefined 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 film, Dougherty estimated that an average of 30 fires have struck Detroit each night for 30 years and said, "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." Detroit's firefighters are world-renowned 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.