Only the Brave (8/10)
by Tony Medley
Runtime 134 minutes.
More than a decade
ago the 20-year-old son of one of my doctors had sort of a summer job as
a firefighter. He was sent into a dangerous area in a fire somewhere
around Santa Barbara and was killed. The story I got was that his
supervisor didn’t like him and he sent him on this dangerous mission
intentionally. It devastated my doctor’s life.
I never had a clear
picture of how fires worked. I knew they were dangerous, of course, but,
even though Southern California is inundated with forest fires during
the summer months, I don’t understand them. And it’s not really mankind
that causes all these forest fires. One of the things that stayed with
me from Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast” (1840) was the
scene where his ship anchors outside Santa Barbara around circa 1835 and
he describes people living on the beach to get away from a forest fire.
Actually, my understanding is that forest fires are a way of keeping
Regardless of all
that, forest fires can endanger populations and they need to be fought.
This film is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,
an elite team of professional firefighters. And, as far as I can
determine it is pretty much exactly what happened.
It tells the story of
the team leader, Eric Marsh ((Josh Brolin) and how he trained the team
and got them qualified as “hotshots,” who are people who fight fires by
starting their own fires to stop the advance of the fire they are
fighting. Donut (Brendan McDonough) is a rookie Eric hires even though
he has a checkered background (and all this is true). Jennifer Connolly
gives a fine performance as Eric’s wife, Amanda.
But the fires are
what really stand out in the movie. It graphically shows how a fire can
explode and travel as much as 4 miles in 20 minutes (in track terms,
that’s a 5 minute mile), which is faster than you can move to run away
from them. The scenes of the various fires, and especially the Granite
Mountain Fire, are mind-boggling.
The way the fires
seen in the film were created is an example of wonderful movie magic,
because they certainly appear real. Some were controlled burns filmed as
lit forest fires on purpose to thin out forest density to control future
wildfires. Others were filmed on a backlot using liquid propane tanks
and sterno cans, with flames bursting 30 to 100 feet high and radiating
heat so intense that the cast inadvertently ran from it upon their first
close encounter. The trees were a combination of real trees and steel
trees with small cutouts to function as manifolds for liquid propane to
be pumped through to provide an explosion. However it was done, what is
seen in the screen is definitely Oscar®-quality. You walk away from the
theater thinking, “How did they do that?”
One of the things
used by the firefighters is the portable fire shelter, the bivy-sack-size
aluminum tent that all wildland firefighters carry as a last resort. The
shelters deflect heat but melt when hit directly by flames. Although
it’s not explained that well in the movie, firefighters enveloped in
these shelters can survive interior temperatures of around 300 degrees,
but not much hotter. Deployments have occurred 1,239 times since
wildland firefighters started using the shelters in the 1960s, and only
22 have died.
This is all a movie
should be, entertaining and educational. You’ll never read of a forest
fire again without being able to realize what’s really going on and the
heroism of those fighting it on the front lines. As a postscript,
McDonough looks remarkably like the real Donut, as you will see if you
stay for the closing shots of the real people and the actors who played
we were driving back from the screening down Vine Street (the screening
was at a theater at Hollywood & Vine), I said to my assistant that it
looked as if we were driving directly into one of the fires in the movie
as the sky before us was overcast with what were clearly clouds of smoke
from a major fire. When one lives in Southern California, these clouds
become ominously familiar. Sure enough, it was a huge fire in Anaheim
Hills that had started while we were in the screening and burned for
several days thereafter.