I hope I’m wrong…but I think this film may sink like a stone at the box office. It’s just a matter of timing and attention…or lack thereof. I didn’t know about this movie’s existence till I happened on one of the trailers a couple weeks ago, and was intrigued by the stellar cast and core story. Given the lack of marketing I’ve come across for ‘Only the Brave’, it’s my hunch that this one will be yet another case of an undeniably solid flick being short-changed by its own marketing campaign and left hung out to dry on release. Which’ll be a shame, as this was an effectively mounted, well acted and relevant telling of a tragic true story of bravery, heroism and ultimately, death.
‘Only the Brave’ tells the story of the ‘Granite Mountain Hotshots’, the first municipal ‘hotshot’ team in the US, in AZ. A ‘hotshot’ is basically a ‘SEAL Team 6 of fire fighters’ (as is noted in the movie) who are responsible for getting up close to out-of-control wild fires and attacking them head-on through trench digs and pre-burns, while also coordinating with ‘air attack’; the airborne water tankers that support the ‘ground pounders’. We follow a select group out of the 20 man team, including experienced Team Lead ‘Eric Marsh’ (Josh Brolin), his second-in-command ‘Jesse Steele’ (James Badge Dale), recovering crack head (and 21 year old new father) ‘Brendon McDonough’ (Miles Teller), and wannabe ‘ladies man’ ‘Chris Mackenzie’ (Taylor Kitsch). We also get to know (fictional) regional Fire Chief ‘Duane Steinbrink’ (Jeff Bridges), his wife ‘Marvel’ (Andie MacDowell), and ‘Marsh’s strong-willed and independent wife ‘Amanda’ (Jennifer Connelly). We see each of these characters struggles and triumphs as the work and the desire to prove themselves push them to the brink, all leading up to the tragic events of June 28th, 2013.
There were several reasons that this movie interested me. I’m a huge fan of good ‘war films’, and the concept of these ‘platoons’ of ballsy sons-of-bitches going one on one with nature’s unrelenting fury is very much in keeping with the spirit of films like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) and ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013), in which small groups of well-trained and disciplined men must face down incredible odds to survive. Only instead of killing and rescuing men, they’re killing fires and rescuing towns and forests. Like the military, I have the utmost respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line to stop the massively destructive wildfires that can lay waste to hundreds of miles of land and property. To think of any films that REALLY delve into that profession in ANY way, only two spring to mind…and neither are any where near as important as this one. The first is a personal favorite of mine, one of the ‘lesser’ titles in Spielberg’s filmography and that’s the charming fantasy / romantic drama from 1989 ‘Always’ (which uses forest fires and the attack pilots as its back drop), and the hilariously unsuccessful attempt to turn football player Howie Long (‘Broken Arrow’) into an action star with the ‘Die Hard in a forest fire’ flick ‘Firestorm’ (1998). Both of those are pure escapism, whereas this one is a gritty retelling of an actual event, similar to Peter Berg’s excellent ‘Deepwater Horizon’, from 2016 or his aforementioned ‘Lone Survivor’. Had Berg’s name been on this one, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest, but instead this one is capably helmed by Joseph Kosinski, more known for his science fiction entries ‘Tron Legacy’ (2010) and the surprisingly entertaining ‘Oblivion’ (2013). The gritty and realistic subject matter is a departure for him and since he’s in line to direct the completely unnecessary ‘Top Gun’ sequel, I was curious to see how ‘real’ he could keep things. Happily, I can say that I have a bit more faith in that project, having now just watched ‘Only the Brave’.
On a technical level, this film is very nicely mounted. While obviously CG in many shots, the scenes depicting the runaway wild fires were impressive and a little frightening, even more so when I consider that only a couple months ago, the area of BC where I live was shrouded in thick smoke for a couple weeks as a mass of wild fires burned to the South and the North East of us. The live-action material is great and the location shooting looked completely convincing, along with the vehicles, costumes and props. My aircraft fetish was also served nicely, as we get treated to some cool sequences in which a variety of plane types come through to water bomb the stricken areas as the men hastily set up their fire fighting tactics.
The cast, as mentioned above, was on point, with manly Josh Brolin, gorgeous Jennifer Connelly and up n coming Miles Teller really standing out, though pretty much everyone stepped up and convincingly did their part. I particularly liked the layered relationship between Brolin and Connelly’s characters, where at sometimes they were in perfect sync, while they also have relationship issues they’re trying to work through. I was convinced by what they showed me and it made the end result of the story all the more tragic. Much of the banter between the various team members was also ‘natural’ and, at times, funny.
One thing that surprised me about the script was how much time we spend with the team and several of the individual characters. This movie is not ‘BAM, straight into crazy fire fighting adventure’ shit. It takes it’s time establishing characters, their motivations and the obstacles they’re trying to overcome in their various lives and careers. I could even see how some people out there could actually find the first half of the movie dull or slow, but once I had warmed up to the pace and found myself invested in the characters, when the shit finally went down…it had an impact. Another thing I found interesting was how the main incident was handled. In many other movies like this, there would be the big build-up, that you would feel in the pacing, before ‘The Incident’ would go down, usually saturated in melo-drama. Here…*SPOILERS*….the deaths of the 19 men comes about rather quickly and, in a way, unceremoniously. We see the team competently fight their way through a variety of different blazes throughout the 2 hour run-time and when the Yarnell Hill Fire hits, it feels like all the others…only something goes wrong. I found this approach somewhat refreshing, as it lent credence to the idea that sometimes these things happen faster than anyone can predict and people can ultimately and tragically lose their lives as a result.
One area where I do think ‘Only the Brave’ fell a little short, was in some of it’s pacing and structure in the first half. Several periods of time blink past and we’re not told…whereas sometimes, we do get a Title Card informing us that X number of months have elapsed…but not always. It was a little jarring and, at times, clumsy. Even though some of the scenes were not connected as well as they could’ve been, the scenes themselves were still very good.
All in all, ‘Only the Brave’ is a solidly constructed, emotionally stirring movie credibly (for the most part) depicting a recent real-life tragedy and treating it with the respect and gravity it deserves. It has a great cast, a gritty aesthetic, a number of genuinely exciting and suspenseful sequences, a sense of humor, and a heart. When the credits rolled (with the expected photos of the real victims), I found myself feeling a little depressed…and that’s how I knew the movie had worked. In looking up information on the ‘Granite Mountain Hotshots’ for this review, it seems like a fair bit of the movie is accurate, while a certain amount is definitely artistic license, to be expected. To anyone who enjoys well-made depictions of harrowing real-life events like ‘Deepwater Horizon’ or ‘Lone Survivor’, I can easily recommend this movie. I do think that it deserves to be seen on The Big Screen, but if you miss it…be sure to check it out on Home Release. It’s just a genuinely good movie…and it deserves the attention.