Only the Brave, the movie starring Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and Miles Teller, tells the story – one version of it, anyway – of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots. It is, as the trailer says, “based on true events.”
But how accurate is the movie about the Yarnell Hill Fire and what happened before it?
The film’s ending probably doesn’t require a spoiler alert. The hotshots’ fate was well documented at the time. But if you’re hoping to avoid learning about specific plot twists in Only the Brave, proceed with caution.
More: Josh Brolin brings surprise and heat as a heroic Hotshot firefighter in ‘Only the Brave’
Is ‘Only the Brave’ a true story?
The short version is this: When it comes to what counts – the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire itself – Only the Brave sticks to the facts.
The depiction of the crew’s final day together matches the records from the fire investigation, interviews with some of the people involved and a book by the fire crew’s sole survivor, Brendan McDonough (played by Miles Teller).
In other parts of the story, it’s hit or miss.
Even before the movie’s debut, some of the family members of the firefighters raised concerns about the film’s depiction of events. The Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, a group founded by three surviving relatives of real-life hotshots – the widow and the mother of hotshot Andrew Ashcraft and the widow of hotshot William Warneke – issued a statement challenging the film’s historical accuracy.
Apart from a few characters, they said, the film doesn’t depict how other families dealt with the tragedy.
“Know that this movie will not answer questions about what happened that day, outside of loss,” the group said. “This is a Hollywood movie. It does not show complete truth, it is just a movie.”
So how much is true?
With everything outside of the deadly fire itself – the movie unspools for more than 90 minutes before the firefighters roll into Yarnell – the screenwriters and director Joseph Kosinski take liberties with geography and chronology, ratcheting up the dramatic tension in ways real life didn’t.
Still, a lot of what’s there is true. Here are some things Only the Brave gets right and some it doesn’t.
True: Real-life characters
The real Granite Mountain Hotshots and others are played one-for-one by actors including:
Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh, the leader of the hotshot crew.
Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough, the only surviving hotshot. He was posted as a lookout away from the rest of the crew on the day of the fire.
James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, the crew’s captain and one of its longest-serving members.
Taylor Kitsch as Chris MacKenzie, a member of the crew. In one scene in the movie, Kitsch’s character can be seen taking pictures. In real life, MacKenzie took pictures and video on a handheld camera the day of the fire. Those images, recovered and shared with officials, contributed to the subsequent investigations.
Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh, Eric Marsh’s wife, who has been sometimes outspoken about the crew since the fire.
Every member of the 20-man crew has a real actor playing him in the credits list. But most of those are background characters.
Not quite: The Jeff Bridges character
“Supe” Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) at Lookout Point in Columbia Pictures’ ONLY THE BRAVE. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, depicted as the father figure who helps guide the creation of the hotshots. Steinbrink is a real person who did oversee the team, and was close with Eric and Amanda Marsh.
But former Deputy Chief Darrell Willis – who actually guided the creation of the hotshots and ran Prescott’s wildland division at the time of the Yarnell fire – is nowhere to be seen in the movie. The Steinbrink character does double duty at times, taking steps Willis actually took.
Combining characters isn’t uncommon when filmmakers are working with real events. Still, some family members believe the film fails to credit some of the people instrumental in creating the hotshot team.
True: History of the Granite Mountain Hotshots
Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), plan to do the backburn at the Chiricahua Mtn. fireline in Columbia Pictures’ ONLY THE BRAVE, THE TRUE STORY OF THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOTS. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
About two-thirds of the film isn’t about the Yarnell Hill Fire at all, but an origin story for the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The team began as a smaller crew of firefighters within the city fire department of Prescott. When it reached full certification to fight wildfires anywhere in the U.S., it was noteworthy as the only municipal hotshot crew in the country. Most crews are run by larger agencies such as the Forest Service.
The movie opens on the 2005 Cave Creek Complex Fire north of Phoenix and suggests that experiences there motivated Eric Marsh to certify his then-Type 2 wildland firefighting crew as an elite crew of hotshots.
The real-life crew had worked for years before becoming certified as an elite “Type 1” crew in 2008. And the team did later work on the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire in southern Arizona, as depicted in the movie.
Not quite: How long the firefighters were together
The film also suggests the hotshots were together for longer than they actually were. In reality, the turnover on the team, both before and after it was certified as an interagency hotshot crew, was frequent, as is the case on most wildland crews.
A few team members had been on for many seasons. Some among the crew, though, were in their first or second season.
Almost nobody on the crew had been there the duration of the team’s existence.
True: Darker sides of Eric Marsh, Brendan McDonough
The movie pulls no punches in depicting the challenges of at least two crew members. Marsh’s past troubles with substance abuse is referenced, part of an attempt to connect him with McDonough (Teller).
McDonough first appears in the film sitting on a couch with a buddy and a bong, stoned out of his mind. Later, he is shown stealing a GPS unit from a vehicle in Prescott and then on the phone from jail trying to raise bail money.
All are events from his life.
Not quite: Did Brendan McDonough get bitten by a rattlesnake?
The movie shows the crew working on the Doce Fire – which did happen in real life, shortly before Yarnell – and then shows McDonough being bitten by a rattlesnake. In the movie, he lands in the hospital, where he has to recover.
In real life, McDonough never mentioned a snakebite nor a stay in the hospital in the days leading up to the Yarnell fire.
Instead, he said he went to a funeral and dealt with a bout of flu. Snakebite treatment is never mentioned in any official reports as a reason McDonough was placed on lookout duty instead of the fire line.
The snakebite episode seems more useful to further other plot points, most notably MacKenzie’s infatuation with McDonough’s nurse at the hospital. He mentions her again on the hike up the ridge in Yarnell (a conversation that wasn’t documented in real life).
Not quite: Personal conversations before the fire
Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly play husband and wife in “Only the Brave.” (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
The movie builds dramatic tension with a series of scenes that take place the night before the crew heads to the Yarnell fire. In reality, some of what is depicted happened days or weeks before, if at all.
The crew is shown at a Whiskey Row bar the night before. At one point, McDonough asks Marsh to accompany him outside, where he tells his boss he wants to leave the crew and join a structural team. He wants regular hours so he can give his daughter more attention.
In the movie, Marsh reacts angrily, accusing McDonough of walking away from the team. He warns the young firefighter he’ll never get another job with his criminal background.
Later, Eric and Amanda Marsh fight on the drive home. Amanda tells her husband she’s decided she wants a family, counter to an agreement to remain childless. Marsh forces her to stop the truck and he stalks off, eventually winding up at Steinbrink’s house.
The next morning, he and Amanda reconcile and later still, he is shown on the drive to Yarnell telling Jesse Steed, the team’s captain, that this would be Marsh’s last season on the crew.
Most of these sequences were invented for the movie, or at least re-imagined and moved out of sequence.
In his book, McDonough writes that he asked to talk with Marsh about his future well before the Yarnell fire. He became upset after realizing he would never see his daughter enough and he cried as he told Marsh about his dilemma, he writes.
Marsh reacted positively, McDonough said, saying, “Whatever you need to do for your daughter, you go ahead and do that. I support you fully.”
There are no accounts of the Marshes fighting the night before the fire. Marsh received an email at 8 p.m. that Saturday night instructing the hotshots to report to Yarnell the next morning. (In the movie, he receives a phone call at sunrise.) He activated the phone tree and told the crew to meet at Station 7 by 5:30 Sunday morning.
There is no record of what Marsh and Steed discussed on the drive to Yarnell.
True: What happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots
Aside from a few snippets of conversation among the hotshots, the movie sticks to the official record once the crew arrives in Yarnell. Much of the dialogue is taken from radio transcripts.
Small details differ. The Blue Ridge hotshot crew, whose members helped McDonough move his crew’s vehicles out of reach of the flames, is depicted as the Blue River hotshots. The ranch identified as the “bomb-proof” safety zone appears as a collection of older buildings, rather than the shiny silver structures at the actual site.
But the film nails other scenes. Marsh reacts angrily when an air tanker drops retardant on an area the hotshots had been burning to build a line against the fire’s advance. The scene had been foreshadowed earlier when another tanker drenched the crew at another fire near the Grand Canyon.
McDonough is shown taking on the role of lookout as the crew heads up the ridge. (The movie suggests he was still recovering from the snakebite. Actual accounts suggested it was his lingering flu.)
The film depicts the crew trying to escape the flames and clearing a space to deploy their shelters, but it doesn’t invent much dialogue. Almost nothing is known of that sequence of events, beyond what Marsh could report on the radio.
Perhaps what’s most true about the depiction of the fire is this: There is no attempt made to invent reasons for the crew’s movements, no scenes that try to answer the question of why the crew left a seemingly safe, already-burned area and descended into a canyon that became a trap.
In real life, many questions have been raised about who might have made the decision and why.
But in the movie, as in real life, the reason isn’t known.
Not quite: The ending of ‘Only the Brave’
The movie depicts a dramatic sequence in which McDonough’s appearance at a school in Prescott reveals, without words, to horrified family members that he was the only hotshot who was not lost in the fire. He is then shown walking outside, where he is comforted by Amanda Marsh.
In reality, the wives and family members learned of the deaths more haphazardly, through the media or social media in some cases. At the time, and to this day, family members say they were forced to go through the trauma in too public of a manner.
In his book, McDonough said he spoke with wives and mothers and other family members of the lost crew. “My place was with the families,” he said.
Follow Shaun McKinnon on Twitter: @shaunmckinnon
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