Review: “Only the Brave” a realistic look at 19 heroes’ lives and deaths

It occurred to me, as I walked into a Phoenix movie theater for a screening of “Only the Brave,” that, if I lived anywhere other than Prescott, Arizona, I’d probably be looking forward to this picture as an action film about firefighters.

 

But I do live in Prescott, and I did know some of the men depicted in this film from my job as a newspaper reporter covering the cops, courts and fire beat.

So I approached the screening with more than a little trepidation. I mean, I teared up when I saw the scene in the trailer where the hotshots formed a pyramid at the ancient alligator juniper tree they saved from being lost in the Doce Fire weeks earlier near Prescott.

What if it wasn’t any good?

The Granite Mountain Hotshots head out to fight a fire in “Only the Brave.” (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

Background

The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, part of the Prescott Fire Department, was the only city-based hotshot crew in the nation. On June 30, 2013, the 20 men were assigned to fight the Yarnell Hill fire, which was threatening (and would devastate) the town of Yarnell, about an hour’s drive from Prescott.

Nineteen of the men in the unit were killed when the fire, which, driven by strong winds, and fueled by thick brush, changed direction suddenly, trapping them in a canyon. The 20th man, Brendan McDonough, was the lookout, and he was moving the crew’s vehicles away from the fire when the others were lost.

Investigators were never able to establish why the crew was moving through the canyon, heading for a ranch house about a half-mile away, instead of remaining in the relative safety of the burned-over area nearby. known as “the black.”

It was the single worst firefighter line-of-duty-death incident since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Film

Crew Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) interviews Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) for a job on the hotshots. (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

“Only the  Brave”  focuses on young “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller) and Crew Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, looking startlingly like Marsh) who decides to hire him, despite Donut’s proverbial checkered past.

As with most films based on a true story, because we know how the story will end before we even enter the theatre, the measure of the quality of this film lies in how well it tells us what happened to get the characters to the end.

This it does in a workmanlike fashion. Much like the hotshots themselves, the movie gets right to the job at hand, showing the dual stories of the unit’s early days as a Type-2 handcrew, intercut with scenes of Donut’s former life as a pothead who does things like stealing an electronic device out of a Jeep, right in front of Prescott police officers.

When Donut’s girlfriend becomes pregnant with his child, he decides it’s time to clean up his act. Although she isn’t interested in having him in the child’s life, he joins the hotshots so he can afford to buy baby supplies, which he deposits at her front door.

A second challenge “Only the Brave” faces is that it must try to develop the characters of the 20 hotshots, as well as the others’ key roles. The movie stumbles here, simply because it can’t, in two hours, give each of the hotshots a fair shake. Many of them are given a key element that we can remember — Andrew Ashcraft (Alex Russell) twirls his mustache, Clayton Whitted (Scott Haze) carries a small Bible, Chris MacKenzie (Taylor  Kitsch) is the class clown — but there’s no time to really get to know them all.

Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Division Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) talk about the future of the crew. (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

No, this is really Brolin’s movie, and he carries it well. We find out that, while he’s driven to turn the Type-2 crew into a Type-1 Hotshot unit, his marriage is beginning to suffer, as his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), grows to resent the amount of time he’s spending away from home on wildland assignments. He’s also comfortable with a decision the couple made early on not to have children, which Amanda is starting to regret.

Marsh is counseled and mentored by Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), a wildland division chief. Bridges takes on the role of father figure well, supplying context to the decisions Brolin’s character makes.

Ultimately, “Only the Brave” is a tribute to wildland firefighters. It demonstrates, to what will be a mostly urban audience, the grueling job, which requires the men to literally “fight fire with fire,” not water.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots start their backburn at Yarnell Hill. (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

The film gets some details wrong, and tells some of the story out of order, but that’s to be expected. I was amused to note, for example, that the film’s Station 7, headquarters of the hotshot crew, is located on an empty high plain, not in the middle of town in an industrial area as the real Station 7 was.

Almost all of the scenes of Prescott were shot in New Mexico, so downtown does not resemble real life very much. Matt’s Saloon is represented well, as the place the firefighters go to celebrate.

A nice touch was to combine photos of the actors with the Hotshots they portrayed during the closing credits.

This is a solid film, clearly made to showcase the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and, while it will likely serve to educate the audience in most of rest of the country, it should serve as something of a catharsis for the people of Prescott and environs.

Links

Here’s a link to the GQ story that inspired the movie.

Here’s a link to the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters

Prescott Firefighters’ Charities

A link to a previous Code 3 episode about the aftermath of the crew’s deaths.

Read more about the Granite Mountain Hotshots:

Columbia Pictures presents a Black Label Media presentation, a di Bonaventura Pictures / Condé Nast Entertainment / Black Label Media / Relevant Entertainment production, Only the Brave.  Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, with Taylor Kitsch and Jennifer Connelly.  Directed by Joseph Kosinski.  Written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer.  Based on the GQ article “No Exit” by Sean Flynn.  Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Menchel, Erik Howsam, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Dawn Ostroff, and Jeremy Steckler.  Executive Producer is Ellen H. Schwartz.  Director of Photography is Claudio Miranda, ASC.  Production Designer is Kevin Kavanaugh.  Editor is Billy Fox, ACE.  Costume Designer is Louise Mingenbach.  Music by Joseph Trapanese.  Music Supervisor is Jonathan Watkins.  Creative Consultant is Brendan McDonough.  Casting by Ronna Kress.

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