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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 forests healthy.

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 fire officials 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 them.

Serendipitously, as 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.