NR | 1h 31m | Documentary | 2023
Shot in seven small towns across the country, the documentary “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” (“Cool Hat”) could easily be pegged as something targeted mostly at rural audiences, since people living in those areas can easily relate to the relaxed, no-frills content steeped heavily in hearty Americana.
Jointly financed by the John Deere Company and the National Volunteer Fire Council, “Cool Hat” displays levels of commitment, sacrifice, selflessness, collective intestinal fortitude, and old-fashioned small-town values that are virtually absent on both coasts and in most big cities.
The Tubbs FireThe movie opens in Santa Rosa, California, with future firefighter volunteer Jenna Dunbar revisiting the site of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which destroyed over 5,500 homes (including hers) and claimed nearly 22 lives. Even years after the event, the earth there remains scorched, and rebuilding is still in its infancy stages.
Ms. Dunbar’s backstory, not addressed until the final third of the movie, is beyond impressive. She could have easily become a professional athlete in a multitude of sports, yet chose to go the route of noncompensated firefighting.
Ben FranklinU.S. volunteer fire companies are older than the country itself, with the first—the Union Fire Company—being founded in 1736 by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who founded the first firefighting company.
Based on what is presented in the film, virtually anyone can become a volunteer in some capacity, whether it is interior fighting (the most physically demanding), exterior (water hose, crowd control, and EMT coordination), administration, or local fundraising.
Training DaysIn another segment taking place in North Bend, Washington, we witness a dozen or so hopeful recruits, all from different walks of life, undergoing a rigorous, 12-week training program that depicts in great detail the level of tactical acumen and the physical demands required to perform interior firefighting.
For me, the most impressive and moving portion of the movie is the part dedicated to Alan Michl living in Exeter, Nebraska, population of 516 as of the 2020 census.
For over a quarter century, Mr. Michl has been not only a volunteer firefighter but also a school bus driver and has served as mayor. Shari, Mr. Michl’s wife of 41 years, is also a volunteer firefighter.
Where’s the Fire?Making a movie about the finer points of firefighting without any actual depicted firefighting is problematic. It’s like watching football players practicing on the field before a game without ever seeing any of the game.
Mr. Matoso and Mr. Zohoori slip up a bit when profiling a multigenerational firefighting family based in Beeville, Texas, by drifting away from the narrative at hand and including melodramatic details of their personal lives.
It is also during the Beeville portion where an official attributes the increase in recent fires to “climate change” without providing any form of scientific data to back up his claims. On the upside, the official doesn’t use the term “global warming.”
On the whole, “Cool Hat” is an inspirational and uplifting film profiling salt-of-the-earth Americans of every race, creed, and gender working together to protect us 24/7 without any desire for monetary reward.
Their service should be praised and acknowledged by all of us in perpetuity.