Friday, September 14, 2018
Nate Hood on Young Men and Fire (2018) Camden International Film Festival (2018)
Among the woodland firefighters of Grant’s Pass, Oregon, there are single fathers, ex-prisoners, and former addicts. Some feel called by God, some by the money, and some by the work. “I wanna feel things,” one of the new twentysomething recruits explains, “I wanna get scrapes and cuts and I wanna sweat. I wanna feel my legs burn when I get to the top of a hill. I wanna feel it. Those are the things that make me feel alive.” But whatever their motivations, these men come together for the sole purpose of defending lives and wildlife from the wildfires that threaten the west coast of North America every dry season.
Supposedly named after the Norman Maclean book about the deadly Mann Gulch fire of 1949, Alex Jablonski and Khalil Hudson’s Young Men and Fire follows the recruiting, training, and first missions of a new generation of hotshots. If Joseph Kosinski’s magnificent retelling of the doomed Granite Mountain Hotshots’ last mission in Only the Brave (2017) was the fact made fantasy, then Young Men and Fire is the fantasy made fact as it strips away all the inherent romanticism of man vs. nature with a ceaseless succession of backbreaking labor and stultifying monotony.
Right off the bat the recruits are told that it’s not unusual to work 100-hour weeks; twelve hour days are the norm and fourteen, sixteen, and even twenty-four hour shifts aren’t uncommon while in the thick of things. One of the trainers mentions casually that during one particularly nasty deployment she lost twelve pounds in the three days. So we watch them train and work and train and work until they can barely stand or speak. And only then are they sent off to fight actual fires.
It quickly becomes apparent that the biggest danger they face isn’t the fire, but boredom, both in a metaphorical and literal sense: if you slack off and don’t pay attention to your surroundings, you’ll probably end up dead. But the tedium hardly bothers the men—this is the work they were born to do, and they love it.
In an unusual stylistic twist, Jablonski and Hudson frame the film with quotes from an audiobook of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, his novel about growing up in the midwest. The comparisons are unmistakable: firefighting is a crucible that turns boys into men and broken lives into new and whole ones.