Only the Brave (2017)
It’s not about what’s standing in front of you. It’s about who’s standing beside you.
I’ve always been an admirer Joseph Kosinski, the visionary stylist behind flash sci-fi epics TRON: Legacy (2010) and Oblivion (2013). So, when the 43-year-old filmmaker signed on to helm a different kind of entertainer, a fact-based ‘biographical’ disaster movie set in the world of wildfire, I was more than a little intrigued. Thankfully, Only the Brave — Kosinski’s third feature — is an honest-to-goodness winner, the picture telling the harrowing and heartfelt true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of hailed firefighters who, on a day-to-day basis, protected towns and communities, these unassuming heroes putting their own lives on the line in order to defend their countrymen and preserve their peaceful way of life.
Based on the 2014 GQ article titled ‘No Exit,’ written by Sean Flynn, Only the Brave explores themes of sacrifice and redemption, along with the bonds of brotherhood, while showcasing the splendor, horror and sheer raging might of a fast-spreading firestorm.
Opening up in Prescott, Arizona (round about 2007), audiences are quickly introduced to ‘Supe’ Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a capable, no-nonsense head of a rural fire brigade handcrew. As it stands, Marsh leads a small band of men whose primary objective is to construct firelines (to control and contain local wildfires), this at the behest of the more experienced Type 1 squads, who tackle the infernos head-on (far off in the distance), these elite ‘hotshots’ — aka, the Navy SEALs of the firefighting world — constantly overruling Marsh’s calculated suggestions, the skilled superintendent able to predict signs of a blaze that’s about to go south — think suddenly shift direction or spiral out of control.
Wanting to change the current situation, the frustrated Marsh soon turns to Mayor Worthington (Forrest Fyre), seeking his aid and blessing, Marsh eager to transform his community unit into a sanctioned hotshot outfit, even if the Prescott Company had very little chance of triumph — a civic crew achieving hotshot status was very much unprecedented at the time. And so, with the help of Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), a local elderly fire chief who vouches for the team’s certification, Marsh and his boys set out to become authorized Type 1 ‘smoke eaters.’
To form the troop, however, Marsh requires new recruits, and therefore decides to hire some fresh blood to invigorate the squad. Enter drug addict Brendan ‘Donut’ McDonough (Miles Teller), a bad-boy slacker who’d recently gotten PYT Natalie Johnson (Natalie Hall) pregnant, the now-expectant mother uninterested in having a no-account stoner help raise her child. Brendan, though, not having grown up with a father around, is determined to pitch in, and, in an attempt to get back on the straight and narrow, sets his sights on becoming a hotshot, Donut applying for a spot on the team.
With the band of potentials now complete, the go-getter trainees undergo months of rigorous exercise and evaluation until they (against all odds) succeed in becoming official Type 1 firefighters in 2008; and thus, the Granite Mountain Hotshots are born, the first municipal hotshot crew in the whole of the United States.
Traversing the country battling fierce and scorching wildland fires, and a handful of other dangers/ obstacles along the way (including venomous snakes and time away from family and loved ones), the men slowly grow in maturity and camaraderie, this due to their deep dedication to the trade and one another, their time on the job enriching all of their lives, especially McDonough, who is now a different man because of the experience. This fellowship, however, is put to the ultimate test when the fraternity of firemen, gambling with their lives, try to contain the notorious Yarnell Hill blaze in June of 2013 — the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history — this risky undertaking demanding pains and sacrifices perhaps too big for any man to make.
Written by Ken Nolan, Black Hawk Down (2001), and Eric Warren Singer, American Hustle (2013), Only the Brave compresses the 6-year-long saga — the Granite Mountain Hotshots in operation for some 6 years — into a shorter time frame (round about 3), the film choosing to focus on a handful of men from the cluster of twenty, this allowing audiences to establish strong emotional connections with the narrative’s key players. But that’s not to say that we don’t learn a thing or two about the other boys — no siree. Apart from seeing these sooty-faced hose jockeys out in the field, we’re given steady snippets of their testosterone-fueled boozing sessions and ‘locker room’ banter, one of the lads showing off a nifty party trick, too (one that involves a beer bottle and chainsaw), their combustible chemistry fun and contagious.
Of the crewmen, it’s ‘dropkick’ Donut who really takes center stage, Miles Teller, Whiplash (2014), wholly selling the wastrel’s vulnerability, strength of mind and wittiness, Donut turning to the Hotshots (opting to choose boot camp over rehab) after being thrown out of home by his neglectful mother — needless to say, his admirable road to redemption makes the character, who starts off as a bit of a jerk, empathetic and easy to root for. Then there’s ‘class clown’ Chris MacKenzie, played by Taylor Kitsch — who’s making a bit of a big-screen comeback, Kitsch starring in American Assassin (2017) only a few short months ago. Like Donut, MacKenzie also undergoes a bit of a transformation, the proud and resentful firefighting veteran (of ten years) forging an unlikely bond with newbie Donut, who initially seems unworthy of becoming a hotshot, this after witnessing Donut’s dedication to the party when he saves a comrade from being crushed by a charred falling tree — fortunately, moviemakers don’t dwell too much on the men’s early struggle, deciding to focus on their loyalty and affinity instead.
Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin, Milk (2008) — who, in his early 20s, fought fires for three years as a volunteer for a fire department in Arizona — is in tip-top form, adding gravitas to the lead role of the grizzled Eric Marsh, a man who plainly gives it all up to defend and safeguard others, his unwavering sense of duty putting significant strain on his loving relationship with wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse whisperer who treats wounded steeds, the capable Connelly, Noah (2014), proving she can go toe-to-toe with a presence as commanding as Brolin. In smaller parts, the great Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart (2009), is excellent as Marsh’s mentor, Arizona emergency services supervisor Duane Steinbrink, the 64-year-old star (who’s no stranger to the playing dudes in the American West) bringing battle-hardened wisdom, and a smidge of wry humor, to the sagacious cowboy-like division chief, while Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL (2015), does what she can in her few scenes as Duane’s doting companion, Marvel.
Shot in the same kind of forestry ranges where the Granite Mountain Hotshots would frequently wrestle wildfires, Only the Brave is elevated by its authentic production design and seamless VFX, the rough and rugged terrain instilling a stark, lived-in quality into proceedings, whereas the raw and striking (often apocalyptic) visuals by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi (2012), further heightens the drama. Moreover, the sequences in which the servicemen battle blazes on the frontlines truly impress, these moments of ‘action’ encapsulating the unforgiving nature and searing beauty of the deadly Red Flower, the fire-soaked imagery (while quite grounded) possessing a dreamy, hypnotic-type quality — this particularly evident in a recurring vision of a flaming bear fleeing a burning woodland.
While perhaps not in the same league as Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), or the star-studded The Towering Inferno (1974), Only the Brave is a touching tribute to the ‘ordinary’ supermen whose courage and heroism cost them their lives. It’s interesting to note that the final stretch of the picture, while bound to leave a mark, has been rather downplayed — meaning, there’s no valiant score or grandeur slow-mo to go with the devastating heartache and tragedy — this modesty only reinforcing the nobility of the men’s sacrifice, the Granite Mountain Hotshots not seeking reward or entitlement. The film, though, does conclude with a photo comparison montage that pays honor and respect to the real-life brave men — and, if that doesn’t turn on the waterworks, the earnest lyrics of ‘Hold the Light,’ performed by Dierks Bentley, (which plays over the images) will surely do the trick.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner