“Only the Brave”: firefighting is like the military, and the horror of a firestorm is well noted

Only the Brave”, directed by Joseph Kosinski and based on the GQ article by Sean Flynn, is a rather frightening Imax dramatic account of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, 19 of whom were trapped by Yarnell Hill fire in western Arizona on June 30, 2013, and roasted to death, despite being inside their fire bags.  The film release is timely given the recent destructive wildfires around Santa Rosa CA especially.

I presume the film has a lot of real footage of the fires, which explode and approach with shocking speed.

Much of the story concerns the group’s founder Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), his wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one particular firefighter with a criminal record whom Eric hires and takes under his wing, Brendan McDonough, played by Miles Teller.  Now Teller often plays the charismatic young man who falls under the spell of an older mentor (as the jazz drummer in “Whiplash” (2014), so sometimes his roles seem self-contradictory.  His bod gets tested enough, first by P.T. (he vomits after finishing an uphill sprint the first time), and then by a desert rattler bite in the middle of the film, where Brendan does without the painkillers and anti-venom (and gets his bandages torn off his leg at a party rather unceremoniously). But once his daughter is born, he almost quits in order to be a better dad, before Eric talks that down.  Really, we’re too valuable to die only when we have kids?  Brendan is generous with radical hospitality, offering a teammate a room to stay in his apartment. Brendan, working as a “foreword observer” and apart from the unit, is the only member to survive.

In fact, the movie seems to convey a moral message about physical courage and risk sharing.  The Hot Shots are like a military unit, and individualistic men probably would not fit into it.  The rest of us depend on young men to sacrifice themselves, when life goes on for us.

The film twice gives us the image of a burning bear (grizzly), all its body hair on fire, fleeing the flames alive.

It’s noteworthy that women are not shown as members of the hot shots. There is old-fashioned unit cohesion among the men; sexuality (outside of Brendan’s daddyhood) and gender never come up in conversation.

Yarnell Hill Fire picture, Wiki.

Picture: brush in southern Nevada, my trip, 2012. Second picture: residual fire damage about Gatlinburg TN, six months after fire, my visit, July 10, 2017.

Name:  “Only the Brave”
Director, writer:  Joseph Kosinski
Released:  2017/10/20
Format:  2.39:1, Imax
When and how viewed:  AMC Tysons 2017/10/23, afternoon fair crowd
Length:  133
Rating: PG-13
Companies: Sony  Columbia Pictures, Black Label Media
Link:  official 

(Posted: Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“Voices of Chernobyl”: Supplications from the family members of victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant catastrophe in the Ukraine

The documentary “Voices of Chernobyl” (2016, “La supplication”, or “The Prayer”), by Pol Cruchten, is actually based on a “novel” by Svetlana Alexievich)

But the presentation of the film is rather simple.  A number of people, especially family members of the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers and rescue personnel, stand in the ruins, or sometimes in the early springtime river, plains and forest country of northern Ukraine, and give testimonials to their personal losses.  Often the victims (mostly men) are shown, lying still, clothed.  The horrific symptoms of radiation poisoning are described verbally, but the men are usually left intact visually.  Some of the victims are children born about the time of the disaster who then develop leukemias.

The speakers (in French, with subtitles – the country of origin is Luxembourg) mention the upwind damage in other countries, most of all Belarus, where many abortions would then be performed.

Toward the end, a few women gardeners, indeed “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” (index) appear, working the soil fearlessly.

The actual “accident” led immediately, according to Wikipedia, to 31 deaths, but many more must have occurred gradually.

The film was shown at the DC Environmental Film Festival on March 16 at the Ring Auditorium in the Hirshhorn Smithsonian Museum (where I had seen  the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition one week before).  The DCEFF program gives the title as “Voices from Chernobyl” as do some trailers; But imdb uses the preposition “of”.

Wikipedia coverage of Chernobyl disaster, many pictures including sarcophagus.

I remember the newspaper coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster in March 1979, when I was living in Dallas;  for a while a melt-down was feared.  When I worked with Dan Fry’s group “Understanding” from 1975 to 1979, I met a woman, in New York City, who wanted to start a national caravan to oppose nuclear power.  She was a one-issue person.

However, young inventor Taylor Wilson has argued that small underground fission plants for many utilities could make the power grids safer (from solar storms or EMP) by reducing the dependence on large transformers.  Taylor has actually written an article about Fukushima in 2011.  His work (in a book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion” — index) deserves a documentary film now.

Name: “Voices of Chernobyl”
Director, writer:  Pol Cruchten
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Ring Auditorium, Hirshhorn, DCEFF, free, 2017/3/16, large audience (a lot of it young)
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Red Lion
Link:  film

(Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT)

“Blood on the Mountain”: coal mining, especially in West Virginia, did not make America “great” and gives us all bad karma

Name:  “Blood on the Mountain
Director, writer:  Mari-Lynn C. Evans, Jordan Freeman
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Landmark West End, DC, 2016/12/21
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Aborama, Virgil
Link:  official

On July 31, 1971, I was nearly arrested (it would have been the only time in my life) for trespassing on a strip-mine along W Va 93 between Mt. Storm and Davis.  Strip mining, and the idea of mountaintop removal, had already been growing by 1970.  Later, in May 1991, I would take the underground mine tour at Beckley W Va.

The film “Blood on the Mountain” (2016), directed by Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman, provides a good 90-minute history of the coal industry in the United States, particularly West Virginia, since the late 19th Century.  In the early days (until the New Deal) coal companies built company towns in the mountain hollows and miners essentially worked as serfs in what practically amounted to feudalism. Early castastrophes included the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster  with many workers succumbing to silicosis.

Once miners were partly unionized, the usual labor struggles ensued, but mine disasters repeated. One of the very worst was the Buffalo Creak flood in 1972, when a cofferdam failed.

In time, underground mining jobs started to dwindle as strip-mining (with those “Big Muskie” draglines) increased.  The film shows the mountaintop removal at Kayford and Blair (where a child labor controversy had occurred in 1921 ).

Most of the families in this part of the country supported Trump, but it’s hard to believe that, even in the best days (maybe the 1960s), America was “great” in coal country.  The film covers scandal after scandal with government and company officials.  One of the most recent was the Elk River spill near Charleston, W Va in early 2014.

I drove through this countryside twice this year, after the massive floods in June.  Most of the people there seemed quite self-reliant, able to rebuilt their own homes with their own hands and tools, and really didn’t want a lot of outside help or visitors.

The film has some morality tests, like the idea that elites or progressives like trees, streams and mountains more than they like people, and that many coal miners feel that they have been made “extinct”.  There is also a claim that globalism means taking resources from one area and giving them to another and letting the original area be left for dead.  That reminds me of the whole strip mining reclamation issue (latest news).  There’s one shot, apparently from Kayford, of a blackened ridge that looks extraterrestrial (like in one of my dreams).

Add to all of this, is a scandal with pharmaceutical companies pushing opioid pills in West Virginia, most of all the town of Kermit, CNN video.  Make West Virginia great again, indeed.

Maybe Luke Andraka (Jack’s older brother) can help make Appalachia great again, with the science fair project he won at age 15, regarding acid drainage from mines, described here in the Baltimore Sun.  Look at his underground coal mine picture on Facebook, Oct. 19, 2015, here.

(Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 8:15 PM EST)

“Deepwater Horizon” treats the BP oil rig blowout in 2010 as another “Titanic”


Name: Deepwater Horizon
Director, writer:  Peter Berg
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1 Imax
When and how viewed:  2016/10/1 Regal Manassas VA, small audience
Length 107
Rating PG-13
Companies: Participant Media,
Link: official

Deepwater Horizon”, directed by Peter Berg, plays like a somewhat abbreviated “Titanic” (1997), or even “Poseidon” (2006, remake of 1974). The film creates the first hours of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in April 2010.   The oil rig, about 50 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, was essentially like a ship.  The first half of the 107-minute film sets up the characters at hazard, with a great deal of attention to the “negative pressure test” explained by John Malkovich – it’s supposed to reassure the crew.  There’s a lot of street talk in the technical explanations and diagrams.  Then hoses leak and mud leaks, and over about twenty minutes of film the crisis escalated until there is a full explosion and fire.


The central character is rigger Mike Williams, played by a still youthful and “creative” Marky Mark Wahlberg. Remember those articles (predicated on body fascism) in the late 1990s that showed how you were supposed to mimic Mark Mark in building your own fan webpage?  The early scenes show the departure from his wife  and his driving his SUV across an impressive Louisiana swamp-scape (including Lake Pontchartrain). Life on the rig is a bit like being in the merchant marine, it seems  (I wonder if there was ever a ban on gays.)  It’s cozy and acerbic.

His wife has to find out about the emerging catastrophe when his Skype connection breaks.  She has to call the Coast Guard, which reluctantly tells her about the fire.

Later, there is a scene where Williams jumps into the water from the burning rig and forces a female coworker to join – parallel to a somewhat sacrificial scene with Di Caprio near the end of “Titanic”.

The film certainly gives plenty of hints as to how a complicated man-made machine broke down and failed despite all the safeguards.  In that sense, it shares some commons with “Command and Control” (Sept. 23).  And the consequences for others in the region (man and wildlife – oil-slicked birds are shown crashing the rig) are catastrophic.  The film does not present the environmental cleanup, however, and I suspect there could be a sequel from Lionsgate/Summit/Participant that will.

There has been some SLAPP litigation against other journalists that reported on the supposed inadequacies of the cleanup efforts, as ABC News documents.   I recall BP CEO Steve Hayward’s “I want my life back”.

I saw the film in a new Regal auditorium in Manassas VA with full IMAX (as opposed to RPX). The 2.35:1 aspect was preserved throughout (not the case with “Interstellar“, for example).

Wikipedia attribution link for Coast Guard picture of burning site in May 2010.

(Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2016 t 1:30 PM EDT)

“Command and Control”: our close brush with a nuclear explosion in Arkansas after an accident in 1980


Name: Command and Control
Director, writer:  Robert Kenner
Released:  2016
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/23
Length 92
Rating NA
Companies: PBS, American Experience
Link: official 

Command and Control”, directed by Robert Kenner, for PBS and American Experience, gives a riveting account of the 1980 Damascus Titan Missile Explosion, near Little Rock, AK. It’s based on the book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by Eric Schlosser.

The incident happened because the maintenance protocol changed, and a technician overlooked it and brought the wrong torque wrench, late in the day Sept. 18, 1980.  A rivet fell 80 feet to the bottom of the bay (which was not netted) and bounced against the missile, causing a fluid leak, leading to eventual explosion   The feared nuclear explosion did not happen, but the film maintains that it could have gone off.

The initial team evacuated, and another team came in but could not prevent the blast, which killed one airman and severely burned several others.

Several politicians in Little Rock, where a Democratic fundraiser was being held, were told by phone and feared nuclear explosion. Bill Clinton was the young governor at the time and acted naïve.

The Air Force tried to keep the ultimate danger quiet, and disciplined several airmen and ended the careers of a few officers.  The technician got an Article 15.

The documentary uses a lot of stock footage and some models. Many of the men are still alive today, and talk about how gung-ho they were when in their 20s.  The film recapitulates several accidents, especially the crash over Goldsboro, NC in January 1961.

The director points out that nuclear weapons technology is vulnerable to unanticipated human error that can have catastrophic results.  There have been many other near misses.  One or two of them could have started WWWIII with the Soviet Union.  It’s also appropriate to consider the dangers posed by loose nuclear waste (Yucca mountain was mentioned in the QA, but materials in former Soviet republics are a big risk, as demonstrated in the film “The Last Best Chance” (2005) produced with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

QA Session






(Posted: Friday, September 23, 2016 at 11:50 PM EDT)