Playing with FIRE – film review

At the weekend I had the great pleasure of watching Playing with FIRE. The hot documentary film about the Financial Independence Retire Early movement. I really enjoyed the film.

I’m grateful to my friends, who backed the Kickstarter, for inviting me over to watch their pre-release copy and eat all their pizza. My friend teased me about writing a film review on the blog. I warned them that it’s been about ten years since I last wrote a film review. But it’s the least I could do to repay their generosity. So here goes nothing!

Playing with FIRE

Playing with FIRE documents the journey and experience of Scott Rieckens, his wife Taylor and their young daughter, Jovie. Scott is an Emmy nominated film and video producer and together with Travis Shakespeare, an Emmy-winning TV producer, they set about making an awesome documentary about FIRE.

The film starts with the Rieckens reflecting on their current life. As things stand, they’re on track for the standard modern-American family life of working till age 65, juggling pay cheques to meet the bills and both working full-time demanding jobs that wrestles them away from spending time with Jovie. They were living the quintessential ‘Spendypants’ lifestyle as Mr Money Mustache would put it. With precious little to show for it.

This changes when Scott discovers the FIRE movement. That their current path is not the only way. That there is a path for a better life for his family. Playing with FIRE follows the Rieckens’ ups and downs as they adjust towards a FIRE lifestyle. Along the way, they seek the wisdom and guidance of those who’ve already made it.

Expensive expenses

The first wake-up call for Scott and Taylor was when they sat down with the Mad Fientist to run the rule over their current living costs. Safe to say he blew their minds! Opening their eyes to some eye-watering spending. $2,000 a month on food and groceries. $400 a month lease payments for a BMW. And staggering rental costs – living in San Diego is apparently very expensive!

The Damascene moment comes when Scott and Taylor take time to reflect on the ten things they want in life. They realise their spending wasn’t reflecting their values. All but two of their top ten required money. The two exceptions being very important: wine and chocolate.

From this point on the film tracks Scott and Taylor as they move across the US living with their parents and friends as they try to cut down their spending and focus on the things that matter in their life.

The Journey

Something especially noteworthy about Playing with FIRE is that it shows when the theory meets reality. FIRE bloggers, myself included, often paint the rosy picture of sunshine and rainbows. But getting there is difficult. It requires a change in mindset. As the guys from Choose FI put it in the film, if you see life as a series of sacrifices it’s going to be damn hard.

Playing with FIRE doesn’t hide this truth. Taylor, in particular, finds life on the road hard. The pressure of being the main breadwinner, uprooting her whole life and following what, I think is fair to say Scott’s passion, with no idea how the story will end.

The Rieckens find it particularly testing when, having uprooted for the nth time to a new town, they struggle to find anywhere remotely affordable to live. Something I’m sure most young Brits can deeply sympathise with.

At this point, we see the wobble, the classic setback in the narrative arc. Taylor laments the loss of her shiny BMW – replaced by a dependable Honda CRV. Scott struggles to keep his head up as things don’t go to plan.

I found their determination to keep going uplifting. For me, that is the heart and soul of Playing with FIRE.

Talking heads

During the journey, Scott and Taylor seek the counsel of almost all the big names in the FIRE Movement. It’s quite remarkable how many people they got on board for the film.

I’ll confess that I was a bit worried at first that this would end up, like with many talking head type films, with the names blowing their own trumpet. Aside from one or two instances, my concerns were misplaced. The talking heads provided great insight.

That said, long-term followers of the FIRE movement are unlikely to hear much new. But it was interesting to see familiar names present their views in a different way than usual.

Of all the wise men and women the Rieckens met on the way, I found that JL Collins, JD Roth and the Mad Fientist stood out. Each providing actionable advice that I think gives the most mileage to people stumbling onto FIRE for the first time.

(Financial Independence) Retire Early

Another interesting aspect of Playing with FIRE was its strong focus on the Retire Early part of FIRE. Having seen the evolution of the movement from some 10 years ago to today, there has been a shift to focus on the Financial Independence aspect of FIRE. Retire Early often relegated to parentheses. I welcome that. Not necessarily because I’m an advocate for Retire Early (look at the name of this blog!) but I find often that Financial Independence is often a masquerade for selling a lifestyle. Something which Mr Money Mustache admits is his (not so secret) secret on film.

On the contrary, this film really focuses on getting your finances together. There’s a focus on reflecting on retirement age and financial resilience than on some of the more abstract concepts of Financial Independence. For me, I think that is important. The encouragement to really think about how much you are saving is a universally valuable message for us as a society to address.

Rounding up

Playing with FIRE is a good film. It’s clear that a great deal of care has gone into editing and post-production. This isn’t some bloke with an iPhone doing some monologues to the screen. This is a cinema-quality production. Some of the visuals alone are really quite breathtaking. With cracking overhead and panoramic shots as the Rieckens criss-cross America. Likewise, the editing is crisp. This film doesn’t drag. It’s not bloated. At an hour thirty, the Playing with FIRE’s timing is spot-on.

The film is at its best when it follows Scott and Taylor navigating their way through the challenges of FIRE. They do a great job of showing it’s not all plain sailing and how putting the theory into reality is easier said than done. I enjoyed a lot of the talking heads. But for someone familiar with FIRE you will have heard a lot of it before. Sometimes I was willing for the film to go back to the Rieckens.

I really hope Playing with FIRE will find its way towards a wide audience. Scott, Taylor, Travis and the rest of the production crew really deserve a round of applause for a great film.

All the best,

Young FI Guy

p.s. Ken of The Humble Penny and Barney of The Escape Artist have been in touch with me with an exciting announcement. On Wednesday 12 June, they’ll be hosting the London Premiere of Playing with FIRE along with a Q&A session with director Travis Shakespeare. You can find out more details here.

10 thoughts on “Playing with FIRE – film review

  1. One thing that I think is money well spent is cinema tickets (for good movies of course).
    Looking forward to watching this if possible. Maybe I’ll be in London for the premiere.

    The family seem very relatable- and it’s goid to know the path of those whose footprints you follow

  2. Thanks for the review – I hope it shows at a cinema near me and I can make one of the showings.. Good to hear that there is some emphasis of the RE part of FIRE, which is just as important to me as the FI part.

  3. Agree with your point about FIRE being very FI-centric. I am pretty keen on the early retirement part but feel constantly ashamed of that as so much FIRE material tells me only the lazy and uninspired don’t want to carry on doing some kind of work. You’ve hit the nail on the head with it sometimes feeling like a lifestyle is being sold to you.

    Have got my ticket to the premier. Looking forward to seeing it.

  4. Excellent, I’m pleased to see the film get the thumbs up from The Details Man! I’m also impressed by how the whole US FI community has co-operated and rallied around to support this project.

  5. We had a codger conversation this morning. One of our number reminded us of the time an offspring spent her school weekends working in a shoe shop.
    Nearly all the permanent shop assistants had large credit card debts because they liked to own Prada handbags and the like, while earning rather little.

    An exception once confided that she avoided such debt and was saving up.

    “What are you saving for?” asked the schoolgirl.

    “To buy my boyfriend a Rolex.”

    Maybe the first rule for FIRE is “Don’t be a bloody moron.”

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