The well-worn dramatic format of putting a unit of professional men in a tense situation and watching them deal with it is given a big shot in the arm by Only the Brave. This robust and vigorously acted telling of the tragic loss of 19 top-tier firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill blaze in June 2013 most directly follows in the line of such recent true-life-derived action hits as American Sniper and Lone Survivor. But temperamentally it’s also a descendant of Hemingway’s grace under pressure, of Howard Hawks’ “Are you good enough?” explorations of male camaraderie in extremis.
As a fall attraction aimed at the nation’s mid-section dwellers rather than at coastals, this Sony/Columbia release is certainly good enough to make a notable score commercially.
An engaging account of a tragic real-life story.
The members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were all just regular guys, but they were also members of a true elite, the creme-de-la-creme of a fraternity of men who risked their lives containing fast-spreading wildfires. They were mostly gung ho, can-do types with a penchant for horsing around and downing a few brewskies, but all that would immediately be put aside when danger called. However variable and volatile they may have been off-duty, they were Medal of Honor material on the job.
At first, the outfit overseen by “Supe” (as in superintendent) Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin in absolute top form) aren’t yet in the major leagues of firefighting; they’re a Prescott, Arizona, municipal team trying to crack through to cherished “hotshots” status. A table-setting scene of the men at work provides vivid evidence of the amazing rapidity with which wildfires can spread, and also serves as a springboard for Supe’s crew to win acceptance into the elite of firefighters.
Since such a unit consists of 20 firefighters, we’re not about to get to know many of the men very well; the well-wrought script by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down and — ahem — Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) decides to principally concentrate on the most capable, Supe, who has what seems like a great marriage to feisty, loving Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse whisperer for battered steeds, and the least likely to succeed, Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller). When met, the latter is a no-account wastrel and druggie who’s just gotten a poor young thing pregnant, an issue he views as just one more “whatever.” He’s a total jerk, indicating a very long road back to redemption.
After just this straightforward bit of setup, the film has already succeeded in immersing the viewer in a particular way of talking, a way of life. When it’s time to kick back, the guys know how to do it, Western-style, with the customary booze and B.S.-ing humor embedded in strong feelings of professional camaraderie. And music, too, of course, some of it supplied by Supe’s closest confidant, old fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, for once clean-shaven, conventionally coiffed and unburdened with the gravely voice he seems mostly to have used since playing Rooster Cogburn).
By throwing down the welcome mat and inviting the viewer into close quarters with generally positive characters in a distinctive enclave within an otherwise recognizable small-town world, director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) establishes a crucial audience bond that will make the tragic end you know awaits all the more powerful. The film is also good at the perfunctory stuff of showing how the Hotshots train, create burn areas to prevent fires from spreading further, give each other a hard time and otherwise go about being the best at a job that can keep you away from your family for long stretches; in the worst of circumstances, it can also end tragically. It’s hard not to genuinely admire these guys who work very hard for very little other than the satisfaction of doing the job well.
The screenwriters do have a tendency to conclude too many scenes with little upbeat kickers, but these are exceeded by small details that stick in the mind, such as a burned tree almost falling on a man out of the blue, another fellow being bitten by a rattlesnake when his mind is on much bigger threats or the guy who’s expert at cleanly opening a bottle of beer with a chainsaw.
Because of its cast of young men being buff and hormonal and good at their jobs, one could say that Only the Brave is the Top Gun of firefighter movies, the difference being that the new pic feels like it’s embedded in reality rather than in an aerial wet dream.
The tragic climax is a mighty and grim thing to behold, a catastrophe dictated by stupid mistakes, misfortunes and the whims of nature. No one was more qualified or could have been better prepared to face the adversities of that day than this squad, which had set so many controlled burns before. It was just a day when very bad luck trumped very good preparation.
Brolin strongly conveys the brawn, brains and confidence any foot soldier would want in a leader, and James Badge Dale offers fine backup as the second-in-command. Teller so convincingly embodies a massively loathsome young lout at the outset that it’s hard to believe you can at least somewhat come around to believing he’s reformed by the end. Connelly is unusually spirited as Supe’s deeply invested wife.
Production values are all they need to be, first and foremost the quite believable fire effects.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, di Bonaventura Pictures, Conde Nast Entertainment, Black Label Media, Relevant Entertainment
Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsh, Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell, Scott Haze, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Rachel Singer, Natalie Hall, Geoff Stults, Jake Picking
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Ken Nolan, Eric Warren Singer
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Eric Howsam, Michael Menchel, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill, Dawn Ostroff, Jeremy Steckler
Executive producer: Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editor: Billy Fox
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Casting: Ronna Kress
Rated PG-13, 134 minutes