Review of “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.

Press conference with the cast of “Only the Brave”

Below we have a recording of the live press conference that occurred in Los Angeles Sunday morning October 8, 2017 featuring nine people associated with the movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “Only the Brave”.

On June 30, 2013 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Of the 20 Hotshots, the only one that survived was Brendan McDonough. In the photo above, Brendan is on the left in the front row and was introduced as a creative consultant. One of the actors mentioned that he was on the set almost every day. Seated in the front row to Brendan’s left (L to R) are Miles Teller (he plays Brendan in the film), Josh Brolin (Eric Marsh), Jennifer Connelly (Amanda Marsh), and Jeff Bridges (Duane Steinbrink).

In the back row (L to R) are Joseph Kosinski (Director), Taylor Kitsch (Chris MacKenzie), James Badge Dale (Jesse Steed), and Pat McCarty (former Granite Mountain Hotshot, served as a consultant).

The press conference below starts at about 4:00.

The movie opens nationwide October 20, 2017.

Owner of ranch that was thought to be safety zone at Yarnell Hill Fire writes book

It is believed by many that the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots that died in Arizona on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 were hiking to a private ranch near the fire, which was thought to be a bomb-proof safety zone. While still hundreds of yards away, they were overrun by the rapidly spreading fire pushed by shifting outflow winds from a thunderstorm.

One of the owners of the ranch, DJ Helm, has written a book about their experiences before, during and after the fire. Below is an excerpt from the book, Fire on the Wind, published with permission.

We didn’t know it was coming, that fire on the wind, but we did know it was blazing out of control way over to the north of us along the base of the distant mountains. I had gone to our front window to check its progress just before we sat down for lunch on that unusually hot Sunday afternoon of June 30, 2013.

We weren’t overly concerned about it as we watched the aerial attacks of water and crimson retardant being dumped in that area. The fire was definitely burning away from us and looked as if it had burned itself out on the mountainous state land to the northwest of our house where it started.Fire On The Wind book yarnell hill fire

I had so looked forward to our three-day Grand Canyon vacation that began Thursday, June 27, 2013. Then right in the middle of it came the phone call. It was early Friday evening, June 28th, and there was smoke on the mountain above our house. The neighbor who called said it was caused by lightning from thunderstorms booming in the skies over Yarnell and Glen Ilah.

Lightning struck on the tallest mountain’s ridge near time-sculpted boulders barely visible above thick native vegetation. Having been deprived of adequate rain for several years it was bone-dry, a volatile wildfire-prone condition. Local fire departments began receiving a flood of calls from those who saw the first smoke. Everyone within the comfortable circle was confident the problem would be taken care of as they continued to go about their daily routines for the next two days.

Judging by first impressions, an aerial report noted it was just a couple of acres of brush burning among a pile of rocks up there; not much of a threat. The rough terrain would be accessible by helicopter only and darkness was setting in; there would be no action taken at that time. It was the beginning of the Yarnell Hill Fire—and we weren’t home.

Sunday afternoon, June 30th, we were back home, and shortly after 4:00 pm the unimaginable happened. Firefighters and residents alike were caught off guard when the northbound fire was clutched by a ferocious storm brandishing strong southbound winds, suddenly turning it around, driving it in this direction. Pushing forward at a speed many firefighters had never experienced, there was no chance of stopping the powerful epic phenomenon. The wind-driven torch swathed across boulder-strewn valleys and over mountains heading toward our communities and the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots, trapping them in a flat-bottomed, three-sided box canyon.

In a flash, smoke and flames engulfed the neighborhoods, causing unprepared occupants to flee the fast-approaching wall of fire. Leaving everything behind except a few personal items grabbed in haste, desperate residents were forced to evacuate as the blaze chased them out. Driving through blinding smoke along twisting narrow streets, crawling bumper-to-bumper away from the advancing inferno, a steady stream of traffic surged onto State Route 89. With the Sheriff’s Department’s assistance and neighbors helping neighbors, everyone made it out safely. Everyone but 19 of the Hotshots.

By happenstance we were most likely the first civilians to be made aware of the 19 young men’s deaths. One of the other firefighters told me about the tragedy later after several of them hiked down here from the fatality site. I was standing by the house, staring in disbelief at the devastation surrounding us in every direction, when he walked up behind me. He wanted to know how to get back in here so they could recover the Hotshots’ bodies from the side of the mountain.

The unrestrained Yarnell Hill Fire became one of the deadliest in U.S. history, swiftly taking thousands of acres that Sunday afternoon. Desecrating the pristine high-desert countryside, it left naked, blackened boulders behind as well as 127 burned-out homes in Yarnell and Glen Ilah. Several buildings on a ranch in Peeples Valley were also burned. Amazingly, though it was harrowingly close for so many of them, no civilians were lost.

Tragically, 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots’ lives were cruelly taken. They had descended from the mountain top and perished in a box canyon one-third of a mile from our home and about a mile southeast of where the lightning had started the fire. Before long the fatality site was enclosed within a chain-link fence. Outside the fenced area to the north a flagpole was erected, which began flying American and Arizona flags.

This book is about our personal experience with the Yarnell Hill Fire and the first hectic weeks that turned into months—now years—as fire officials, police, forest service investigators, government officials, and family members—by this time well over two thousand people—have come up our driveway, through our property, and over the newly-cut bulldozer line to the site.

Fire on the Wind is available from Amazon in full color with 100 color images, and in black and white.

“They were heroes — highly skilled professionals”

(Originally published at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 27, 2017)

Today I was looking back at what I wrote at 6:15 p.m. MDT June 30, 2013, the day 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. What initially got my interest was the fact that a fire that had been burning for only about 48 hours had ordered a Type 1 Incident Management Team — a little unusual, but not unheard of, for a young fire.

That evening I found some intermittent live video from ABC15, a photo posted on Twitter by Jeffrey Blackburn (@lensjb) showing very active fire behavior, and a post by @wildfirediva saying three large air tankers and two Very Large Air Tankers were working the fire.

But the one that really got my attention was this:

Below are portions of a statement released by President Obama the next day:

…They were heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. … But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.

Yarnell Hill Fire firefighters killed
The 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

I continued to update the story on a near-real-time basis for the next five days.

Now as October 20 grows closer I have been thinking more frequently about what happened 1573 days before that date.

On October 20 a movie “based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots” will be widely released — Only the Brave. Many firefighters, former firefighters, and those closely associated with those 19 individuals are apprehensive about this, perhaps for a variety of reasons. How will the producers, writers, actors, and the director treat this event that that still deeply touches a large number of people? Can a for-profit company make a commercial movie about a very sensitive fatal incident that does not take advantage of deep-seated feelings and in some instances mild or serious cases of posttraumatic stress disorder?

Only the Brave movie

The film is not a documentary, so it is a given that it will take liberties with the actual facts. It has to tell a story, and most movie treatments have a conflict that eventually is resolved — or not. What will that conflict be in this adaptation of the story?

Many of the outdoor scenes were shot in northern New Mexico in the Santa Fe area where the fuels and terrain are very different from the fatality site on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

And, the objective of the makers of the project, Black Label Media, Columbia Pictures, and Sony, is to make money.

These issues do not mean it can’t be a great film after which most moviegoers will leave feeling uplifted, or at least satisfied that the events and the real people involved, many still alive today, were treated fairly and honestly.

This project is not unprecedented. There have probably been hundreds of movies made based on real events in which dozens or hundreds of people died. Some were great, and others were not.

Little real information about the movie has been disclosed. There have been a couple of trailers, mostly based on action scenes. I have not seen anything about the story behind the action, or what drives the characters.

There have been a few quotes from actors and a producer that have been encouraging. The word “hero” has been used in describing the Hotshots. Here’s the official description of the film:

It’s not what stands in front of you… it’s who stands beside you. Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is the heroic story of one unit of local firefighters that through hope, determination, sacrifice, and the drive to protect families, communities, and our country become one of the most elite firefighting teams in the nation.  As most of us run from danger, they run toward it – they watch over our lives, our homes, everything we hold dear, as they forge a unique brotherhood that comes into focus with one fateful fire.

Molly Smith, an executive with Black Label Media, said it’s the film she’s most proud of:

We hope you feel, when you see it, as patriotic and proud as we have to have some of the greatest firefighters in the world constantly putting themselves out there for our well being. The ones who have lost their lives we honor respectfully every day, and the ones who wake up covered with dirt and ash and stale coffee on their breath (and always a ribbing laughter) we salute you again and again and again. I hope you feel we have represented you well.

A few weeks ago in an Entertainment Weekly interview, Josh Brolin (Eric Marsh, Crew Superintendent in the film) who for a while was a volunteer firefighter in Arizona, talked about how the actors in the movie still maintain regular contact even after the filming ended a year ago:

This was different, probably because of the subject matter. Nobody’s willing to let it go.

The film has the potential to have some realistic elements. At least one former Granite Mountain Hotshot provided advice as it was being made. The firefighter-actors participated in a multi-day fire boot camp before filming began. The pictures I have seen show the actors wearing typical wildland firefighting gear, and Granite Mountain Hotshot’s actual crew buggies were used.

A new foundation has been created apparently by the film’s producers, called the Granite Mountain Fund, described as a “philanthropic initiative of ONLY THE BRAVE”. The website promises that 98.5 percent of the donated funds will go to one of six organizations, including the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, the Eric Marsh Foundation, and Prescott Firefighter’s Charities.

Granite Mountain Fund

New featurette released for “Only the Brave” movie

(Originally published at 9 a.m. MDT September 12, 2017)

A new three and a half minute featurette has been released for the film about the Yarnell Hill Fire, Only the Brave, which is billed as the “true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots”.

On June 30, 2013 19 members of the firefighters on the crew were killed after the wind shifted and they were overrun by the fire.

In July a two and a half minute trailer was released, but this version adds a few scenes including very brief interviews with one of the producers, a former Granite Mountain Hotshot, and some of the leading actors. As the featurette ends, Josh Brolin who plays Crew Superintendent Eric Marsh says to the camera:

Every person who sees this movie is gonna want to wave a little bit longer to every firefighter they see.

As the vignette ends there is a graphic encouraging viewers to donate to the “Granite Mountain Fund”, which is an organization new to us. The fund’s web site describes their intentions…..

“The Philanthropic initiative of the film “Only the Brave,” drives donations to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to and impacted by hotshots and their work.

“Donations for the Granite Mountain Fund will benefit the following organizations:

  • Wildland Firefighter Foundation
  • Eric Marsh Foundation
  • Kevin Woyjeck Explorers Foundation
  • Prescott Firefighter’s Charities
  • California Firefighters Foundation
  • Carry the Load”

The film will open in theaters October 20.

New movie poster for “Only the Brave”


only the brave
“Only the Brave” opens in theaters October 20, 2017.

In about seven weeks the new movie “based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots” will be in theaters. In 2013, 19 members of the crew were entrapped and killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

Not many many movies have been built around wildland firefighters. There was Red Skies of Montana that in 1952 introduced the myth of exploding trees, and Firestorm brought us Howie Long in 1998. Always was a good movie, but it was not really about wildland fire. So, many of us will be skeptical while waiting for Only the Brave to open on October 20.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Black Label Media which produced the film also made the award winning La La Land (Golden Globe Best Picture, Musical or Comedy), a story that could not be more different from Only the Brave, but it at least indicates that skilled personnel are employed by the company.

Molly Smith, an executive with Black Label, said it’s the film she’s most proud of. On her Instagram page she wrote:

We hope you feel, when you see it, as patriotic and proud as we have to have some of the greatest firefighters in the world constantly putting themselves out there for our well being. The ones who have lost their lives we honor respectfully every day, and the ones who wake up covered with dirt and ash and stale coffee on their breath (and always a ribbing laughter) we salute you again and again and again. I hope you feel we have represented you well.

The film has quite a few well-known actors, including Josh Brolin (plays Eric Marsh), Jeff Bridges (Duane Steinbrink), Jennifer Connelly (Amanda Marsh), Andie McDowell, Miles Teller (Brendan McDonough), and James Badge Dale.

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Mr. Brolin, who for a while was a volunteer firefighter in Arizona, talked about how the actors in the movie still maintain regular contact:

This was different, probably because of the subject matter. Nobody’s willing to let it go.