Review of “Only the Brave”

Only the Brave

Above: image from “Only the Brave” trailer.

(Originally published at 8:34 p.m. PDT October 11, 2017)

“Only the Brave” is one of the few movies that have featured wildland firefighters as the main story line. “Red Skies of Montana”, filmed near Missoula in 1952, is a classic, and the 1998 “Firestorm” featuring Howie Long is funny, and not in a good way.

“Only the Brave”, which opens nationwide October 20, is based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots that fought not only wildfires for several years, but battled with the establishment to finally be certified as the first Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew managed by a municipal fire department — the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. Before that, all 100+ Hotshot crews had been organized by state or federal agencies.

Only the Brave
Joah Brolin at the microphone. to his left are James Badge Dale and Director Joseph Kosinski.

The crew’s final battle began and ended on June 30, 2013 when 19 of the 20 crew members were overrun and killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire 27 air miles southwest of Prescott. The movie, of course, covers this tragedy, but most of it is about the firefighters, their families, relationships, and building a crew.

More photos from the Red Carpet screening for “Only the Brave” in Phoenix October 10, 2017.

The lone survivor of the 20-person crew was Brendan McDonough, played by Miles Teller. Since the tragedy Brendan has talked openly about his struggles with drugs and wrote about it in his book “My Lost Brothers”. The script did not shy away from this fact and the role the brotherhood of the crew played in his rehabilitation as he also became a father. Miles Teller was excellent in the role.

The Superintendent of the crew, Eric Marsh, was played by Josh Brolin in a phenomenal performance, showing the right amount of firefighter machismo, flaws, and maturity. The actual person, Eric Marsh, had some personal history that was similar in some ways to Brendan.

The film does a pretty good job of capturing some of the atmosphere of Hotshot crews, which have been described as tactical athletes, “elite” firefighters, or the Green Berets and Seal Teams of the wildland firefighting world.

Other movies that have had scenes showing wildland fires have had great difficulty creating realistic video imagery of active fires. Apparently it is very hard to use computer magic to simulate flames and smoke that honor the laws of physics. And you can’t just take actual footage of past fires and plop it down in a movie, especially when you need to show actors in close proximity. Their result, put together by Director Joseph Kosinski, while not perfect, is far better than any past attempts I have seen.

Authenticity was very important to Mr. Kosinski. Many films have consultants, but the degree to which their input is adopted varies greatly. Former Granite Mountain Hotshots Brendan McDonough and Pat McCarty were on the set frequently. Mr. Kosinski said he could not have made the film without Mr. McCarty. The fireline gear carried and used by the actors was representative of the actual equipment used by wildland firefighters.

Some of the procedures were also very authentic. In one scene showing the Granite Mountain crew training before they were Hotshot Qualified, the crewmembers were seen running to a site where Eric Marsh told them to DEPLOY their fire shelters, their last resort. The firefighters had already shed their 30-pound packs so they could run faster and were carrying their fire shelters in their hand, ready to deploy…. just like actual firefighters are trained to do when they have to retreat unexpectedly from an approaching fire.

The fire behavior in the film was mostly shown as aggressive with a rapid rate of spread. Occasionally some action on the screen would result in a small unnecessary explosion — a sudden burst of flames — such as when a burning tree slides off a cliff and hits the ground, or when “Brendan” throws away a malfunctioning drip torch that then explodes — it had been shooting out eight-foot flames due to a “bad mix” of diesel and gasoline — which can happen, but rarely to that extent.

James Badge Dale
James Badge Dale played Jesse Steed.

Taylor Kitsch as Christopher MacKenzie and James Badge Dale as second in command Jesse Steed were both believable as Hotshot firefighters.

Jeff Bridges played Duane Steinbrink, the person in the Prescott Fire Department in charge of the wildland fire program and Eric Marsh’s supervisor. It was not a huge role, but he very convincingly pulled off some key scenes with Josh Brolin. Mr. Steinbrinks’s wife was played by Andie MacDowell.

Jennifer Connelly was cast as Eric Marsh’s wife, Amanda Marsh. Several of her scenes were very important, intense, and emotional. She pulled it off extremely well.

One of the issues dealt with in the film was mixing the life of a wildland firefighter with the demands of a family. A hotshot in an average year can be away from home about 90 percent of the time during the three to six month fire season, making it difficult to maintain a healthy family life. When a Hotshot returns home after a 14 to 16-day fire assignment they may be too tired during their two days off to interact in a meaningful way with their family before they leave again for another two-week assignment.

One of the issues about the entrapment and death of the 19 firefighters was why they left the safety of a black, burned over area, and hiked toward a ranch which had been identified as a safety zone. The official reports about the accident have said that no one on the fire at the time knew the crew was moving in that direction before they were trapped by the rapidly moving fire. The Eric Marsh character is shown a couple of times saying on his radio to Jesse Steed and the Operations Section Chief that they were moving to the safety zone so they could “re-engage” the fire. If they had stayed in their original black, burned-over area, they would have been safe. Unproductive, but safe — and alive. Re-engaging the fire, possibly helping to protect homes as the fire burned into the community of Yarnell, which was in the direction they were moving, may have been the goal of the actual crew.

However, it would be a mistake to look at this movie as a documentary that answers questions about what really happened that day in 2013.

Country music star Dierks Bently co-wrote the song heard during the closing credits, “Hold the Light”.

The CEO of a wildland firefighting private company told us after seeing the Red Carpet Screening in Phoenix that he will require all of his employees to see the film by October 30.

“Only the Brave” is a powerful film that can be appreciated by the general public as well as firefighters. Josh Brolin’s performance may be brought up during awards season, while Jennifer Connelly and James Badge Dale can’t be overlooked either.

(UPDATE at 8:12 p.m. MDT October 12, 2017)

Some other early reviews are in for “Only the Brave”.  Here are links to the first four that showed up with a Google search this evening:

One of the most interesting passages in the reviews was from the Hollywood Reporter:

Because of its cast of young men being buff and hormonal and good at their jobs, one could say that Only the Brave is the Top Gun of firefighter movies, the difference being that the new pic feels like it’s embedded in reality rather than in an aerial wet dream.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Review of “Only the Brave””

  1. As an old firefighter (1996-2009) I wanted to add a few thoughts quickly:
    1) This film made me almost dangerously sad. It will be tough for real wildland firefighters, especially those with traumatic memories. Be prepared for that…I’m not saying avoid watching, but maybe pick your time and place so you’re not weeping right before family dinner or whatever.
    2) As atypically good as this film is at not being too unrealistic, it’s still frustrating to me that, with all the former wildland firefighters who can write and edit brilliantly, there still has to be so many small bits of BS in a movie like this. The real world of wildland fire is overflowing with real things and real people who can carry a storyline. To me, there’s no excuse for some of the weird little things every real firefighter will see in this movie.
    3) Thank God the filmmakers were respectful of our work and our families. I’m so thankful of that.

  2. As you say, the reason the Granite Mountain crew left the black and lost contact with their lookout isn’t being addressed by anyone – neither Hollywood, nor the fire professionals. I understand there are liability issues and no one wants to point the finger of blame when firefighters died so terribly. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from this disaster and we aren’t learning it. In olden times, Hollywood sometimes told stories which questioned the dominant paradigm (or absence of same) – films like Silkwood and The China Syndrome. Not any more, it seems.

  3. Surely the point of making a film like this is to ask why the firefighters died. To ignore crucial matters – what was their intention? Why did they leave the safe zone? How did they lose contract with their spotter? is just more Hollywood shinola.

    1. Why is that surely the point? Seems just as likely the goal was to celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of firefighters, to memorialize the Granite Mountain crew. Besides, the answer to why they left the black seems to have evaded everyone, not just the filmmakers. Hollywood tells stories about people pretty well in general, but investigating a tragedy like this is best left to the fire professionals.


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