Documentary film, 1 hour 42 minutes
The best hotshot movies in the past few years are those shot by the crews themselves, bundled into visual yearbooks at the end of each fire season and posted on YouTube. Basically, they’re fire candy to keep a wildland firefighter’s mental engine running through the off-season.
Hollywood has taken a few whacks at capturing the wildland fire experience. They’re visually excellent, but consistently unauthentic — a complaint I have heard and read countless times — and those movies have ranged from okay to terrible. Now, out of the blue — or the black — comes Hotshot, a genuinely fine documentary about what it’s like to work on a hotshot crew and fight some truly nasty fires. Be glad you can’t feel the heat. This movie rewrites the definition of getting a little too close to the action.
The person you see most in the film is Justine Gude, who was a squad boss on the Texas Canyon IHC. The crew is one of five hotshot crews on southern California’s Angeles National Forest. She goes the extra mile in all aspects to ensure she’s up to snuff to fight wildfires, and to make sure everyone survives each shift. Based on the footage in the film, no one gives Justine any more or any less crap than anyone else gets.
The narrator is Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann, who also wrote, directed, and shot the film. The project took six years to complete. He finished shooting in 2020 and completed editing in 2022; the film has only recently been released for streaming.
“If I had only two years [to complete the film] it may have been more like Top Gun, more like rah rah stuff,” said Mann. As the movie turned out, it is haunting, intimate, wrenching, and absolutely gorgeous.
The film is unusual in that it is a documentary without interviews. A big part of that was because, when working with hotshots when you’re not a hotshot, it can be difficult to get them to open up. “They don’t want to be on camera. I was the fly on the wall shooting candid video.”
“There were things they didn’t want to say on camera, so I was saying it for them. I was saying what they told me.” And it works well. Watching Hotshot is like an illustrated story: the visuals dovetail perfectly with what Mann is saying. The narration has a conversational tone and an easy pace.
Mann obviously did his homework too, which is evident in the segment on wildfire history. He shows and tells how wildfire has been shaping the natural world for many thousands of years and how Native Americans learned to follow nature’s example. But the balance went awry once immigrants started putting out every fire concurrent with spreading slash everywhere. And then, in more recent years, encouraging unnatural growth in the forests while the planet warmed. Hence our current Large Fire problem.
There is also a lovely segment about the increasing use of prescribed fire and large-scale burnouts. Mann calls it “painting with fire.”
The footage is excellent throughout, and is awash in fire whorls, ember showers, gigantic smoke columns, and waves of fire washing over roads, firelines — and occasionally firefighters. For lovers of stunning fire imagery, this film is unbeatable. But be aware that there are some scenes you may wish you could unsee. Mann’s treks through burned-over suburbs and rural communities tell a tale not seen on the evening news, but which firefighters see all too frequently. Animal lovers may want to fast-forward through these parts.
The shots are taken from the fireline, from the boots of those staring down the throat of Mother Nature in a rage. Then there are up-close-and-personal shots of airtankers flooding roads with retardant, helicopters carving through the smoke spilling water from buckets and belly tanks, dozers clanking through brushfields while carving line, and firefighters with hoses fighting a losing battle against a relentless fire front.
For those who’ve been southern California hotshots, watching Hotshots from the comfort of your lazboy may spawn a variety of neural responses. You get to enjoy seeing present-day hotshots doing the same stupid shit you did when you were on a crew — making bets on who could drink a carton of spoiled milk, snorting snuff before starting a line dig, watching a rookie puke after a hell-week highballing hike up a long, hot ridge. This is also, perhaps, a good movie for hotshot candidates to watch. Or not, particularly when they get to the part about the rotten pay federal firefighters (ahem, Forestry Technicians) receive, compared with firefighters from, say, Cal Fire or L.A. County.
For non-fire viewers, or rookies, there is some basic information delivered that is artfully delivered. What is fuel? Trees, fields of brush, houses, cars, washing machines. This is clearly summarized by the narrator and backed up in the visuals: Everything that can burn will burn.
And, oh yeah, pay attention to the wind, says the narrator, showing some rather alarming horizontal flammage, such as when the fire activity near to where they are cutting line starts getting dangerously frisky: “They take a bite, pull back, then take another bite, all day, all night,” says the narrator, while viewers see a crew digging hot line, then stepping back while helicopters spill water along the hot flank, enabling the crew to resume the dig.
Thank god there are hotshot crews to handle these debacles. As the narrator aptly puts it, a hotshot crew is “like a Swiss Army knife with beards.” They have everything that they need and nothing that they don’t.
Mann tried to get approval from the Forest Service to get embedded with Texas Canyon and was turned down. But he decided to do it anyway. He got his own PPE, got a press pass, and outfitted a Jeep for line duty. Then he participated with the crew in their pre-season readiness training. “I went through it all with them, the PT hikes, the safety training.” The experience helped him understand, on a personal level, the depth of dedication hotshots have, and he found it humbling. “I felt I was intruding on something sacred.”
Even after he had finished shooting and editing the movie, he couldn’t stop running toward the smoke whenever he saw a column rising from the hills. “I was addicted, and I kept going back even after I was done with the movie.”
Watching the film can be somewhat addicting, too. To see Hotshot, go to hotshotmovie.com where you have the option to pay $4.99 to watch the movie all you want for 48 hours, or $13 to stream it anytime you want for the rest of your life.