The first thing you need to know is that 'Only the Brave’ (directed by Joseph Kosinski,) is not a story about the Yarnell Fire. It is a story about the brotherhood of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Type 1 team. It focuses on the man, Superintendent Eric Marsh, who willed the Granite Mountain Hotshots into existence, pushing and exhorting his team to be better than the best. Josh Brolin portrays Marsh with intensity and insight. Marsh’s obsession with the Granite Mountain Hotshots permeates his entire world, including his relationship with his wife, Amanda.
Amanda is supportive of Marsh’s commitment to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, yet she also wants a bigger part of her husband. She realizes she must build and strengthen her own personal identity while maneuvering in the shadow of the GMHS team. Finding that balance gives her strength when tragedy strikes.
When Brendan “Donut” McDonough, played superbly by Miles Teller, stumbles into Station 7, seeking a spot on the Hotshot team, his role does not seem to be destined. But Marsh looks beyond the kid fighting personal demons, and sees a potential Hotshot willing to give it all for a place on the team. McDonough is hired.
Being a Hotshot isn’t easy. It’s exhausting, it’s grueling. But knowing a town was saved, a home was rescued, even a historic tree was kept from voracious flames are rewards to tuck away inside and realize that it is a good thing.
'Only the Brave' reminds us that brotherhood is more than mere camaraderie. Brotherhood is the act of striving and sacrificing together for a purpose bigger than any one person.
'Only the Brave' also reminds us beyond that brotherhood are families and loved ones that sacrifice and put their dreams on hold so these men can do what they do better than anyone else.
A personal note
It was a Wednesday afternoon in January, 2014, a little more than six months after the tragedy that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots when my phone rang. It was a movie producer from California, and he wanted me to help him pursue a film about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. He had called several other people. But nobody would respond or return his phone calls.
Honestly, my first thought was to tell him to go away. The story was still too raw, the emotions too heavy, not just for me, but for our entire community. The politics swirling around the issues were not pretty. But, Mike Menchel was persuasive, and he had one salient point, “If not me, it will be someone else. Someone else will tell this story. But, I promise to do it right. I promise to be respectful.”
I thought that maybe if we, as a community, worked with someone, we could help guide the story that was told. Because Menchel was right. A movie was going to be made, with approval or without.
I sighed. Then I explained that the final public access to the memorabilia from the fence would be on Friday afternoon, in one and a half days. If he really cared about making this movie, he should come. I wanted to meet him, to try to gauge his sincerity and his integrity. I promised that if I thought he was legitimate, I’d introduce him to some people. First, though, I had to see if he were trustworthy. Because this was going to be a movie about my community. If I decided I couldn’t trust him, I wouldn’t help.
Menchel came to Prescott that Friday. He responded with appropriate deference to the thousands of items rescued from the fence on display. I made some introductions. And that was the start of the process - and it was a process - of making 'Only the Brave'.
Fast forward three and a half years. I’ve kept behind the scenes, but have followed the progress with interest. I was kept abreast of some of the challenges and efforts. I met the film writer and later the producer. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I received a call from Menchel, inviting me to the Premiere being held in Tempe.
So, before I write any more, in the interest of full disclosure, I have received no financial payments from this film of any sort. I have no financial interest in this film. I did not profit in any way whatsoever from this movie.
I have been given a credit at the end. I am appreciative of that.
Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor from the Granite Mountain Hotshots, served as the creative consultant for the film. Pat McCarty, from the Prescott Fire Department, was the technical consultant on Only the Brave, and he put the actors playing the Granite Mountain Hotshots through an intense week-long training camp before filming. As a result, they don’t just act the part of a hotshot crew in the film, they live the part right down to the dirt they inhale while clearing fire containment lines, bringing an important authenticity to the film.
It was obvious that the making of this film touched the hearts of all involved. While at the October 10th Premiere showing of the film, Josh Brolin said, "Hi, guys. Thank you very much for coming. On behalf of all of us, we just want to say thank you. To Arizona, who I have a very personal relationship with, I was a volunteer firefighter in Mescal, Arizona, outside of Tucson, I lived in Tucson for 3 years, I lived in Prescott for a year. I’ve been all over, this is a second home for me. I’m a staunch Californian, but if California fell into the ocean, I’m moving here.
“We really appreciate families, friends, first responders, firemen alike, how much you’ve embraced us in this movie,” Brolin continued. “I know some of you have seen it, you treated us very kindly, it was very important for us to have our heart in the right place during this process. I think because of the people beside me, including Joe Kosinski himself, who I kind of put through the ringer in the beginning, because I had my reticence also. I think he was very tough on all of us in order to make sure that the accuracy was there. From what we’ve heard so far, from people like you, is that we got at least the spirit of it right, and that’s really all that mattered to us. Whatever happens to this movie from here on out is whatever happens. But the most important thing to us was to get your embracing. And I think that we have for those that have seen it. So, thank you so much.”
People in the know from Prescott will find some minor details that niggle. The movie timeline is compressed - the Granite Mountain Hotshots were actually approved as a Type 1 team in 2008. Jack Wilson was Mayor at the time, and Steve Norwood was the City Manager. This was a goal envisioned for years before that. The history of the Granite Mountain Hotshots stretched across the tenure of several different mayors. Prescott Valley Middle School is also non-existent. The Mayor as portrayed is not real. Station 7 did not sit in a field out in the middle of nowhere. Smoke from Granite Mountain Fire was not seen blackly billowing from behind Thumb Butte. And it would have been nice if the Prescott community had been portrayed a little more favorably. (As one person commented, Prescott is far more than Matt’s Saloon and a bunch of cowboys.)
But, to be honest with you, these details are largely insignificant. The important thing is that yes, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were the first municipal hotshot team to be certified as Type 1. Prescott did have a Mayor, and its Council was rightly concerned about costs. The film largely stays away from the political drama surrounding the tragedy, which was a wise decision. Families did gather – but at Prescott Mile High Middle School. There was a Station 7, as the thousands of people who left memorabilia on the fence can attest. And, while smoke was not seen billowing behind Thumb Butte during the Doce Fire, there was plenty of smoke visible from town, nonetheless.
Finally, it’s important to remember that one film can’t tell every story, and it can’t show everything.
At the Premiere in Tempe, Director Joseph Kosinski acknowledged, “I want to especially thank the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their families, I know there are many of them here tonight. Thank you for sharing your stories, your memories with us. No film can present them exactly as they were, but I’m hoping that we were able to give you a glimpse of what they were about.”
Some questions linger in Prescott even now:
Why was the film made in New Mexico, not here in Prescott?
Arizona gives no tax benefits to filmmakers. New Mexico, on the other hand, is rather generous in this regard, providing certain key requirements are met. The terrain in the area they filmed in New Mexico is similar to that of Yavapai County. Attempts were even made to see if the situation could be remedied via the Arizona legislature, but it didn’t happen.
Why was the premiere of the film held in Tempe, not in Prescott?
The original plan was to hold the premiere in Prescott, but out of respect for some of the family members, that plan changed. They did go to great efforts to hold the premiere in Arizona, however. Respecting all the family members is a difficult balancing act, and the producers chose to lean on the cautious side.
Why did 'Only the Brave' focus so much on Brendan, Amanda and Eric? Did Brendan and Amanda finance the film?
Frankly, because Hollywood needs a storyline. The relationships between Amanda and Eric, and Eric and Brendan created a very compelling storyline, set in the context of the brotherhood held so closely amongst the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It’s a story worth telling.
Films like this are crazy-expensive to make, as noted by Peter Debruge in his review for Variety. Be assured, nobody portrayed in this film had the kind of money needed to finance it.
Why weren’t there more details about the fire?
From the day the movie was envisioned in Producer Mike Menchel’s head, it was never about the fire. It was about the relationships that make up a hotshot team, about what they endure together as a team, about the sacrifices they make to do what they do.
Menchel explained that he set out to make a movie that would give the Hotshots and their families the honor, dignity and respect they deserve. That shines through clearly in Only the Brave.
Both McDonough and McCarty agreed. “This is a movie worth seeing,” they said. 'You won’t ever see anything else like it.”
Links of Interest
Josh Brolin: Instagram
Amanda Marsh: Video Interview