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‘Beautiful, devastating, awe-inspiring’: ‘Hotshot’ captures the career’s intensity

The film provides viewers with an unusually intimate look at wildfire devastation through the deployment of the Texas Canyon (California) Hotshots

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the new film “Hotshot,” initially believing it was a documentary about hotshot firefighters. Then I heard it was about a woman who was the only female member of her hotshot crew. The film is actually a bit of both – and neither.

The filmmaker, Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann, gained unusual access to a hotshot crew through his then-girlfriend, a squad boss with the Texas Canyon (California) Hotshots. In the movie, Mann says no one has ever filmed hotshot crews before; I’m not sure if this is true, but he certainly portrays the job and the people that do it in a way that is unique in its intimacy and intensity. The film clearly shows how hard-working hotshots are, both as individuals and as a team.

This is not your typical documentary. For starters, the only voice in the movie is the voiceover of the filmmaker. Even the woman profiled in the feature never really gets to speak. As a result, the movie comes across as a very personal meditation, for better and for worse.

On the plus side, the quality of the cinematography is incredible. There are shots in this film I have never seen before: a fire jumping a freeway, fire tornados up close, sweeping aerial views of fire zones. You also get the sense of claustrophobia in a fire shelter and the camaraderie and squalor of spike camp. The overall effect of the video is beautiful, devastating and awe-inspiring.

I also appreciated that the film addresses some difficult issues related to wildland firefighting. The filmmaker pulls no punches when it comes to the pay differential between U.S. Forest Service hotshot crews and those firefighters who work for agencies such as CAL FIRE or Los Angeles County. He also talks about the misguided history of fire suppression in wilderness areas and how that practice has contributed to recent catastrophic wildfires.

The film incorporates interesting background and information about wildfires, such as the fact that the largest wildfires in U.S. history occurred on the same day in 1871: the Great Michigan Fires, the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin, which consumed 1.2 million acres, resulting in over 2,000 deaths; it is known as the deadliest wildfire in recorded history. I was also intrigued to learn more about the relationship between Native Americans and fire management, and the fact that the Texas Canyon Hotshots were staffed by members of the Zuni tribe from the time the crew was formed in the 1950s until the 1970s.

However, I did find the personal approach to the film to be distracting at times. The fact that the filmmaker was in a relationship with a member of the crew was irrelevant to me yet was repeatedly mentioned by him throughout the movie. I admit I cringed every time he referred to the squad boss as “my girl,” and at the end of the film when he mournfully said, “Goodbye, hotshot.” At first I thought she had died, but Mann was referring to the end of the relationship. For me, focusing on the fact that one member of the crew was a woman did not add to the impact of the film. She was clearly well qualified for the job and accepted by those she worked with; gender didn’t seem to be much of an issue for anyone other than the filmmaker himself.

Additionally, some of the narration was a bit over the top, such as referring to the media as “fire pornographers.” It should also be noted that this film includes frequent profanity and some sexual references, as well as graphic photos of animals killed in fires, so be aware if you’re planning to watch the movie with younger family members.

Still, even with these caveats, this film is worth watching, just for the visuals alone. You can almost feel the cold sliminess of being slurry bombed, or smell the acrid, earthy, tantalizingly poisonous landscape after a wildfire. The visuals are stunning and unprecedented in fire documentation. After six years of shooting and production, the care in editing for maximum visual impact is obvious in nearly every shot. That is the essential strength of this film and why it will be remembered.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.