Only The Brave
Hotshots fight fire with fire in true-life tragedy
Only the Brave (2017)
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges
With wildfires streaking though Northern California, turning parts of Napa wine country to ash, it seems an uncomfortably timely moment to go see a movie about one of the most devastating forest fires in recent American history. Nonetheless, Only the Brave is a tough-as-nails tearjerker aimed almost exclusively at celebrating the stout individuals who volunteer to save lives and property as firefighters.
The film is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, which started as a local fire team in tiny Prescott, AZ. The group, led by Superintendent Eric Marsh (played here with sturdy stoicism by Josh Brolin), spent years trying to get certified as an elite hotshot crew. That would allow them to fight fires directly, instead of serving backup—cutting underbrush and other menial tasks for the main crews. Generally speaking, forest fire fighting is coordinated though the national Forest Service. A local municipality trying to build its own hotshot crew was (and is) unusual. But Prescott is in the thick of wildfire country, and with the assistance of a sympathetic local politico (Jeff Bridges, radiating no-effort charm), Marsh pushes for the crucial certification.
Only the Brave spends most of its run time humanizing the various members of Marsh’s firefighting crew (Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults and Thad Luckinbill among them). They’re a rough-and-tumble mix of small-town boys just trying to provide for their families. Marsh stays front-and-center, however, a reformed sinner hoping to do right by his community and trying to balance that with the demands of his often-neglected wife (Jennifer Connelly in a smaller but crucial role). We also spend a goodly amount of time with newbie Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller from Whiplash). McDonough, nicknamed “Doughnut” by his ball-breaking coworkers, starts out as a screw-up pothead who figures it’s time to get his act together when the girl he dated a couple times ends up pregnant. At first, of course, it doesn’t look like he’s gonna be up to snuff, but the demanding “Supe” recognizes a younger version of himself and gives the kid a chance.
Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion) directs the film in straight-laced, workmanlike style, slowly building the story and only occasionally relying on a visual flourish or two to show off his camera skills. You could argue that Only the Brave never quite solves the “based on a true story” conundrum, going beyond mere dutiful reportage and becoming a dramatic work of art unto itself. But playing by the rules, sticking to the facts and running black-and-white photographs of the real-life people during the closing credits is a formula that seems to work—so why mess with it?
Eventually, of course, our ragtag band of local boys gets certified as a hotshot crew and spends its summers hopping around the Southwest dousing various out-of-control conflagrations. Interestingly enough, the film spends relatively little time exploring the Yarnell Hill Fire, the incident that made the Granite Hill Hotshots infamous and led to the GQ article on which this film is based. It does, however, serve as the film’s climax. Most of Only the Brave fluctuates between character building, domestic drama and some genial humor based on the macho camaraderie between crew members. But the fast-moving, hard-hitting climax doesn’t pull any emotional punches. It’s evident by then, though, that the film is primarily interested in lionizing those involved in the Yarnell incident and not in placing blame on what went wrong there. There are no discussions, for example, of the various policy changes that were instituted after Yarnell Hill. Was team management, safety practices, poor communication or bureaucracy to blame? Only the Brave isn’t saying. Again, the script misses an opportunity to have a deeper discussion. But that almost feels like a different movie. Celebrating the bravery and brotherhood of cocky, good-looking American boys battling a nameless, faceless foe is Only the Brave’s job and it does so with a single-mindedness that makes it strong, tense and emotionally gripping.