See Steve Buscemi During His Early Firefighter Days in HBO’s ‘A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY’

A Good Job: Stories Of The Fdny
By  · Published on September 8th, 2014

If last night’s season premiere of Boardwalk Empire wasn’t enough Steve Buscemi for you, HBO is bringing the actor back during prime time tonight with a documentary called A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY. It’s an hour-long film that he produced and appears in, mainly interviewing New York firefighters and reminiscing with them about his own days with Engine Co. 55 in Manhattan in the 1980s. There are plenty of photos of the scrawny young man before he became one of his generation’s finest character actors. There’s also footage of him helping out after 9/11 and again after Hurricane Sandy.

But A Good Job isn’t about Buscemi, even if he seems to be too much of a focus in the beginning. He has to be, because otherwise the only people who’d watch the film, which is directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA) and also has actor Stanley Tucci as a producer, are fellow firefighters and their families. Not that there aren’t enough in that community nationwide to give HBO decent ratings. But it is primarily men and women just talking about the job, why they went into it and what it’s like to have this other family. They do also talk about many of the city’s worst tragedies for firefighters – not necessarily the biggest fires but the ones with the most casualties.

Obviously there’s a section on 9/11, which is likely why it’s debuting this of all weeks. That carries an interest to viewers without a personal link to the fire and rescue service in addition to Buscemi’s stardom. And with his story mostly at the start and the World Trade Center disaster near the end, they manage to form bookends of accessibility that draw us into all the stuff in between. That includes the other incidents that aren’t as well-known but should be, especially to anyone attracted to urban histories, specific to New York or not. Accounts of the 23rd Street Fire of 1966 (the largest loss of FDNY life until 9/11) and the devastating Happy Land arson incident of 1990 reminded me of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which received its own HBO documentary a few years ago.

Then there is the address of how much the FDNY is still mainly a white man’s club. There could be a little more devoted to the experiences of racial minority firefighters, who don’t stand out in the film as much as women in the service and what it was like in the early years of female recruitment. Discrimination and prejudice were together a kind of fire that needed to be put out, and those who made it through that, like retired fire chief Rochelle “Rocky” Jones (the first woman in that position and a recent candidate for the job of fire commissioner) and Harriet Duren (also an African American, also retired), are heroes on an extra level. Their lives might not have been at risk for being different, but there could have been psychological dangers involved.

And that fits with a persistent theme of A Good Job, which is about the less-recognized traumas and turmoils that come with a profession where not just your life is on the line but where the loss of fellow firefighters as well as civilians is as much a fear and potential travesty. Presently, as the film acknowledges, the FDNY is continuing to deal with the effects of 9/11, as men and women are still suffering and dying from cancer related to the longterm respiratory damage caused by the collapse of the Twin Towers. And then more disasters, some as big as the blaze in the Rockaways in the aftermath of Sandy, especially disastrous as the area is home to many city firefighters.

The resilience of these workers has been and keeps being put to the test, and in its short running time A Good Job paints a portrait of the FDNY as being this brave and rather macho organization that has time and time again been shown to have a certain vulnerability and emotion and even dread. It’s that side of these firefighters (and the million-plus they represent) that will leave you most impressed and proud of what they do for a living (not to mention for your living) in spite of the risks.

Come for the familiarity of Buscemi and stay for the rest, particularly the increased respect you’ll have by the end of the 60 minutes. A Good Job premieres tonight on HBO at 9pm ET and will be available via HBO On Demand and HBO GO starting tomorrow. Other airings on HBO networks are currently scheduled through October, and of course there’s an 8pm ET showing on Thursday night.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.