It’s time to weigh in on the new movie, “Only the Brave.” It’s a love story and a Hotshot movie and a real-life drama, and it really happened — mostly.
In June 2013, 19 crewman on the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the line of duty. They were burned to death in a terrifying way, caught in a granite boulder field with 12-foot-high brush in every direction. The movie devotes about 60 seconds to that final ending for those good men.
I stood at the place where the whole crew perished last year and wondered if I would have stayed out of harm’s way. The safety zone, a ranch just a few thousand yards downhill, was so close, so near, so inviting. Would I have tried to make it, I wondered? I decided I probably would have.
We’ll never know what drove Eric Marsh and his men (they were all men) to try to protect that last ranch in front of that terrible and totally destructive fire. We know they tried and we know they died. We also know something about why they tried and died. They were first responders, firefighters, the best of the best. Of course, they had many flaws and weaknesses. But heart was not one of their flaws.
The movie is about the relationship between a Hotshot superintendent and his wife, and the young man he hired despite his many failings to try to help him become better than he would have been otherwise. The final witness was Brandon "Donut" McDonough, the guy who joined last and lived. He wrote and book and the movie was born.
Old hands thought the movie was very well done. The depiction of crew life and the kind of family life that only soldiers and firefighters know is perfectly presented. Lots of needling, lots of bonding, lots of fear and lots of hope that things will work out. They don’t always work out though. Of the more than 10 million people alive today who fought wildfire, less than 1,000 have died in the line of duty since 1910. While the statistics don’t diminish the lives we lost, the statistics do point out that it would be easier to die crossing the street than fighting a wildfire.
Fighting fire is thrilling and meaningful, and so is the movie. To those who don’t think it’s real enough, or doesn’t do a good enough job telling their story, I say write your own book and make your own movie. It’s the best depiction of hand crew life in my lifetime and the best Hotshot movie ever.
The depiction of cutting fire line, of fire moving at speed through heavy fuels, of saw teams working to clear the way, of overhead working with crews to stop a fire are all spot on. Of course, it’s not perfect. It’s Hollywood. But the producers, actors and consultants did their best to make it real and they did very well.
Of course, there are moments that would never have happened on any fire, anywhere, but for the most part, it’s a real as you can get without being there. The forward advance of a fast-moving wildfire is almost impossible to see because of the smoke and ash and ember storm, but the movie pulls it off. The destruction of a forest is spectacular, just like the real deal, but with much more clarity. And that’s OK. Many of us have glimpsed enough of the dragon’s world to know it was faithfully reproduced.
In the end, it’s a movie about two people, like Romeo and Juliet, and well worth your time.