Another Underrated List is yet another list of so called “underrated” films from yet another white guy who writes about films on the internet. This month, I’m adding Only the Brave, the film that ignited my interest in wildland firefighting, to that list.
When Only the Brave originally came out in October of 2017, and I started hearing some good word of mouth about it, I was immediately drawn to the true story its based on. (Plus I’m sucker for any film with brave in the title. See Lonely Are the Brave.)
Only the Brave follows the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a twenty man team of elite wildland firefighters. As the film’s marketing materials declared repeatedly, hotshots are the so called “Seal Team Six of wildland firefighting” as they engage the fire directly in the areas that are the most dangerous, using only hand tools and controlled fire to construct firelines/firebreaks with minimal outside support.
Once I started looking into the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire, which claimed the lives of nineteen of the twenty man crew, I couldn’t stop thinking about wildland firefighting and how it is one of the nobliest professions in the world. In the age of superhero domination at the box office, here was a film about real life superheroes.
However, since in the fall of 2017 I was knee deep in my senior of college and therefore had little time for films, I never got around to seeing Only the Brave.
Flashforward to January 2019: After stumbling into becoming a park ranger, I began a career development internship designed to give experience in all aspects of park operations. One of these aspects is prescribed burns and to be able to work on these burns, I became a certified Type 2 Wildland Firefighter.
So, when I finally got around to watching Only the Brave, I was glad that the film still managed to leave me captivated and emotional without conforming to my preconceived, almost mythic, notions about it or sacrificing the reality of wildland firefighting for the sake of storytelling.
Now my experiences on the fire line are in many ways incomparable to those of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and what Only the Brave depicts. I’ve only done two controlled burns, each being under ten acres. Yet, a lot of the training and knowledge I’ve received, both in the classroom and in the field, is the same.
I understand what “get in the black” means and that there are 18 Watch Out Situations. (Though I’m sad to say I haven’t committed them to memory, except #18: Taking a nap near the fire line, like should have.) I’ve used a Pulaski, cut a fire line down to bare, mineral soil, ignited a back fire, and mopped up. But, I would never be so bold as to call myself a real wildland firefighter, or even a rookie for that matter.
Yet, this experience on the fire line, however limited, served to enhance the resonance Only the Brave had on me. While anyone can gravitate to and support the triumphs and tribulations of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as depicted in this film, thanks to tremendous performances by the cast (Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.) and delicate direction by Joseph Kosinki, having background knowledge of wildfires and what it takes to stop them made the film so much more poignant. But, again, you don’t need this prior knowledge to understand what’s going on in this film, as it takes time to explain and show you how a crew operates and contains a wildfire without water.
Though it is at times overdramatized and leaves out some unpleasant and down right shameful details of how some of the firefighter’s widows were treated, Only the Brave succeeds because of the emotional impact of its story and, above all else, its perceived authenticity. As Josh Brolin put it in a press conference when asked about how he feels about playing real people, “I don’t think we’ll ever be these guys or even close to it, but I think it was really to find the spirit of these people.”
This film is testament to that. That even though the lives of Andrew Ashcraft, Robert Caldwell, Travis Carter, Dustin DeFord, Christopher MacKenzie, Eric Marsh, Grant McKee, Sean Misner, Scott Norris, Wade Parker, John Percin Jr., Anthony Rose, Jesse Steed, Joe Thurston, Travis Turbyfill, William Warneke, Clayton Whitted, Kevin Woyjeck, and Garret Zuppiger were taken, their spirits are still with us.
Only the Brave is currently streaming on Amazon Video and Starz. If you’re interested in learning more about wildland firefighting, I would also recommend checking out the documentaries Firechasers and The Big Burn.
Originally published in August of 2019