Playing with fire The British documentary 'Firehouse' reduces Baltimore to a one-dimensional image -- and it isn't exactly Charm City.

January 04, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A police car has crashed into a light pole. The officer inside is trapped behind the steering wheel. He says he can't feel his legs, but the rest of his body is in excruciating pain.

Enter -- with sirens screaming -- Bob Wagner and Rescue 1, the Baltimore City Fire Department's elite rescue unit.

"I know it hurts, buddy. Just stay still and we're going to get you out of there in a minute," Wagner says reassuringly. His team goes to work with a hydraulic metal cutter that bites through the car's frame so that workers can peel back the roof like the top on a can of Spam.

It takes more than a minute after the roof is gone -- but not much more -- before the injured cop is pulled free and rushed off to an emergency room.

"Just another satisfied customer," Wagner says, as the members of Rescue 1 finish their cleanup by tossing the roof back on the crumpled car. Then they head off to the fire station to await their next call.

That's the opening of "Firehouse," a three-hour documentary about the fire department making its American debut tonight on the Discovery cable channel.

If the opening scene seems familiar, that's because you have witnessed dozens of similar rescues on the reality series "Rescue 911," which was canceled last year after seven seasons on CBS. At its worst, "Firehouse" looks a lot like "Rescue 911" with sirens screaming, citizens in jeopardy and rescue workers on the way while video cameras roll.

But it has moments that are much better than that, too. The photography is occasionally so imaginative and intense that you feel as if you are standing in front of a burning row house wondering how to keep the blaze from spreading along the common roofs. And there are interviews that take you for a minute or two inside arson investigations the way NBC's cop drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" takes you inside a murder probe.

In fact, it is clear that "Homicide," though it's never mentioned, is the major subtext for "Firehouse" -- for both better and worse. The latter mostly involves what is and what is not shown of Baltimore.

The documentary was made by England's Granada Television, with Discovery as co-producer. Discovery gets first American rights in return for sharing production costs with Granada, which actually made "Firehouse" and has already shown it on European television. This is the way Discovery often does business with international partners.

The English filmmakers have reduced Baltimore to a one-dimensional image, and it isn't Charm City. In "Firehouse," Baltimore is the gritty city.

At the start of tonight's program, the narrator says: "Baltimore is a city of 675,000 people -- people who love their sports teams, their politics and their ethnic neighborhoods. They also love to call 911. One-half of them do every year."

The film has a number of statements -- like our "love" of calling 911 -- that are questionable. And it smells like hype when the narrator calls the Oldtown fire station's medic team "the world's busiest." How could you verify that?

But more troublesome is the fact that the filmmakers don't give one second to the people who love their museums, symphony orchestra, schools, restaurants or multiethnic neighborhoods.

Baltimore here is mostly reduced to gunshot victims lying in the streets, homeless people in doorways, houses burning and old buildings crumbling. European television critics have compared the Baltimore of "Homicide" to Manchester, England, and I suspect that's exactly what the British filmmakers came looking for.

The visual images are reinforced by the music. The theme for "Firehouse" features a smoky, film-noir-style saxophone. It is remarkably similar to the theme for "Inspector Frost," an English television series set in working-class Manchester that features a dour police detective who wears a mackintosh and hates his upper-middle-class bosses.

In the end, Baltimore is made to look bad so that the firefighters and rescue workers might seem more heroic.

The third hour of "Firehouse" is titled "Streets of Fire" and refers to the west side of town as a "modern-day Dodge City." Amid the chaos of gunshot victims, an unattended child who falls from a second-story window and fires seemingly burning everywhere, Lt. Paul Novak -- the head of Engine Company 13 -- does seem like some kind of Western hero. He steps in to save the day, or at least what's left of it in this bleak, postindustrial, practically post-apocalyptic vision of the city.

Is it good drama? Yes. Though you've seen most of the rescue stuff before on CBS.

"Firehouse" engages by focusing on personalities like Novak and Wagner and pitting them against what seem like overwhelming forces of death and destruction.

NTC Is it good nonfiction television? No. I could live with a one-dimensional depiction of Baltimore as the gritty city if the filmmakers had gone as deeply into the firehouse culture as "Homicide" goes into the world of the cop shop.

But, instead, "Firehouse" gives us only rescue scenes and selected personalities -- sociology instead of the stuff of local TV news.

The firefighters and rescue workers seem like dedicated workers doing a tough job. But Granada didn't have to reduce Baltimore to something out of "Blade Runner" to make a case for heroism. All it had to do was go a bit beyond the images of prime-time, entertainment television.

Documentary

What: "Firehouse"

Where: Discovery

When: Tonight, 9 p.m.-11 p.m. and 1 a.m.-3 a.m.; tomorrow, 10 p.m.-11 p.m. and 2 a.m.-3 a.m.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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