A day after Boardwalk Empire’s season premiere party at the Ziegfeld, Steve Buscemi returned to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds to unveil his new HBO documentary, A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY.
Last night’s premiere at Sunshine Cinema drew many of the actor’s old compatriots from Engine 55 to the theater, not far from the Little Italy firehouse where they served together for four years in the 1980s.
Before the screening Buscemi, accompanied by director and co-producer Liz Garbus, seemed to choke up as he dedicated the film to members of the FDNY — but he also made it clear that he’d taken his share of ball-busting in Engine 55’s kitchen, where he reunites with his old colleagues in the film. As he thanked his wife, Jo Andres, for her longtime support, he told the crowd, “She used to come by the firehouse and really gave me some good cred with the guys — they finally thought, well, this kid’s okay… nice girl from Ohio. Even though they thought she was a little weird.”
His fellow firefighters also didn’t quite get why he’d want to leave “a good job” (the film’s title doubles as a euphemism for a tough fire). Recalling the official who signed his order when he took his leave of absence, Buscemi said, “He probably thought I was crazy for leaving, just like everybody else did, but he didn’t say anything — I really appreciated that. He just kind of nodded: ‘Okay, Steve, do what you have to do.'”
But even as Buscemi found his way as an actor (in the film, one firefighter recalls his befuddlement at seeing “that guy from Con Air” on the wall of his firehouse), he didn’t completely leave the job his father nudged him into: “What I didn’t realize then,” Buscemi says as the film opens, “was how much the job would stay with me, and be a part of my life. Even today when big events happen — like Hurricane Sandy, when so many people lost their homes, including a lot of firefighters — we all come back together. It’s like a family.”
That (often quite literal) sense of family is palpable as Buscemi interviews, among others, firefighters who lost their brothers and fathers at Ground Zero. But even if the film is full of got-your-back platitudes and amusing anecdotes about firehouse horseplay (upon learning that Buscemi used to be a furniture mover, a colleague once told him, “What did you move? Flowers?”) it isn’t an unabashed glorification of the brotherhood. Rochelle “Rocky” Jones, the first woman to be promoted to Chief, recalls entering a “hostile work environment” when she made the unheard-of jump from secretary to firewoman in the early ’80s. (Just how hostile was it? One colleague urinated into her boots.) And though the documentary doesn’t explicitly mention a recent discrimination suit settlement, an African-American firefighter admits, “Right now I still can get on the rig and I can still walk out there in the area and have some people going, ‘Wow that’s the first black firefighter I’ve seen.'”
The film touches on tragedies like the 1959 Happy Land social club fire and the arson-happy “War Years” of the ’60s and ’70s by pairing first-hand accounts with chilling archival photography. (There’s harrowing footage of Ground Zero that Buscemi shot while helping out just a day after the attack, as well as some post-Sandy footage — though much of the latter had to be left on the cutting-room floor, Buscemi revealed at Sunshine). But A Good Day isn’t so much a history of the FDNY as an eye into the day-to-day trials and rewards of firefighting, from “probie” training, to that nerve-wracking first job (“when [the captain] said ‘we’re going in,’ I thought he was crazy,” Buscemi recalls), to the pent-up trauma of routinely looking death in the face, to the deadly illnesses plaguing first responders to 9/11.
That last reality was enough to add a somber undertone to the otherwise festive after-party at the New York City Fire Museum on Spring Street, especially with the Tribute in Light once again emanating from Ground Zero, close by.
A Good Job debuts on HBO this upcoming Monday at 9 p.m.