Linemen on the Big Screen

By John Vanvig | RE Magazine Published: January, 2014

front-linesYou’d be hard pressed to make it through the full hour of “Storm Soldiers,” a riveting new documentary about life as a lineman, without your emotions getting the better of you.

“I’ve seen the movie at least a hundred times, and it still makes me tear up,” says Crystal Mistretta, brand & advertising manager for Hubbell Power Systems, a manufacturer of linemen’s tools and line equipment and sponsor of the documentary.

The film, “Storm Soldiers―Linemen: The Untold Story of America’s Other Heroes,” is a beautifully shot, highly personal chronicle of the highs and lows of life as a lineman. Featuring dozens of on-camera interviews of linemen from electric co-ops, investor-owned utilities, and municipal utilities in eight states, the movie takes viewers from routine construction jobs to dramatic restoration efforts in the aftermath of storms. In one interview, the wife of a Texas co-op lineman describes her worries each time her husband is called out in the middle of the night or dispatched long distances to help another co-op recover from a storm. She says she soothes those concerns with the knowledge that he’s working with dedicated crewmates who watch out for one another. Another clip shows a graying lineman recalling how his wife’s prayers sustained him through all the wee-hours trouble calls and stormy perils over the years. His voice breaks a little in the telling.

And in another interview, a crusty veteran recounts the accident that left him with a prosthesis where his left forearm should be, and how the professionalism of his fellow crew after the incident allowed him to see his kids grow up Michael Stremel believes there’s a lot to think about in the film.

Halfway through the roster of 44 linemen and linemen’s family members that roll through the credits, Stremel’s name appears alongside his co-op, Midwest Energy in Hays, Kan. He’s been the operations training manager there since 2007 and a lineman since 1986.

Stremel worked the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, helping a Mississippi co-op get off the ground and making lifelong friends from across the country in the process. “Storm Soldiers,” he says, depicts that kind of campaign well.

“It portrayed a lot of that,” he says, “the challenges they face during outage restorations, traveling for days to get to storm situations, all the crews arriving, how they coordinate and get things going.”

He’s been through plenty of those efforts over the years. In addition to his Mississippi deployment after Katrina, he’s worked numerous ice storms and tornadoes throughout his home state.

Stremel’s role in the film came about when Bill Bosch, a friend and the founder of the National Association of Journeyman Linemen (NAJL), talked the Kansan into doing a quick on-camera interview at the 2011 International Lineman’s Rodeo in Kansas.

“I didn’t think it’d end up being anything, but ending up in the documentary is a very special honor,” Stremel says.

He knows how important his job is, but he shrugs off the label of “hero.” “We just think of it as our job,” he says. “It’s what we go out and do. We’re first responders, just like firefighters and police. Sometimes we need to be there before them to make it safe for other responders. But like I said, it’s our job.”

The “Storm Soldiers” movie had equally humble origins.

“This project started off as a safety video,” says Hubbell’s Mistretta, who served as the film’s executive producer.

“We were taking pictures of our products installed in their environment,” she recalls. “After we interviewed a couple of linemen, it was evident we had a much bigger story to tell. We could raise awareness about the work they do, who this group is, and still promote safe work practices. Our goal was to bring this story to as wide an audience as possible through film festivals, pitching it to networks, and industry screenings. The response has been overwhelming.”

Hubbell has shown the documentary at a handful of lineman’s rodeos, industry gatherings, and film festivals. Mistretta says they’re also in negotiations to make the film more widely available through subscription TV services, including possibly HBO and Netflix. A collector’s edition of the movie, along with an 80-page picture book showing scenes from its two years in the making, is available for purchase at shop.stormsoldiersmovie.com.

Mistretta also notes that proceeds from sale of the movie and book, along with money left over from sponsored viewing, are donated to charities that benefit linemen or their families, including the NAJL, the National Sisterhood United for Journeyman Linemen, and the International Lineman’s Museum. Mistretta says the ambitious project was “a labor of love.”

“If given the chance, I’d do it again,” she says. “Only bigger.”

Stremel says bringing the power back on after a storm, like he and his other “Storm Soldiers” stars do, does more than restore the lights. It forges a bond among linemen, even if they’re just doing their job.

“You go on a storm restoration project, go clear across the nation, and you sit down and talk to the guys, and they know just what you’re talking about. There’s lifelong friendships you make there. There’s a camaraderie. It is a real brotherhood.”