'Let the Fire Burn' not your standard documentary

This has been a strong year for documentaries, with fine films running the gamut from "An Act of Killing" to "20 Feet From Stardom," but even in this crowd, "Let the Fire Burn" is something special. It's a brooding, disturbing documentary about an inferno that becomes an enigma and earns its considerable impact by telling an unnerving story and leaving it fundamentally unresolved.

The events detailed here are some of the most unsettling in modern American urban history. On March 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police, stymied in a standoff that was the latest manifestation of a bitter conflict with a radical group called MOVE that had sputtered on and off for more than a decade, dropped an incendiary device on the row house that was the group's headquarters. That action killed 11 MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed 61 surrounding houses.

In an ordinary documentary, recent interviews with both survivors and analysts would put things into perspective so we could get a handle on what it all means. "Let the Fire Burn," however, does things differently. It's composed exclusively of visual elements from 1985 and earlier. If any factual clarification is necessary, it appears as type on the screen. This approach might not work across the board, but for a subject as literally and figuratively incendiary as the MOVE bombing, it feels exactly right.

— Kenneth Turan


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