HEROIC “ONLY THE BRAVE” FIGHTS THE BATTLE OF MOTHER NATURE
A Film Review by Tim Riley
ONLY THE BRAVE (Rated PG-13) Wildfires have been an unfortunate big news item lately with the raging inferno that has consumed vast areas of Sonoma and Napa counties. Of course, the devastation has been horrific, even though firefighters valiantly battle the furious flames. “Only the Brave,” based on the true story of a heroic crew of firefighters that became one of the most elite firefighting teams in the nation, arrives in a timely manner to remind us that heroes even sometimes have to fight Mother Nature.
You might be better off going into this movie not knowing the disturbing true story of the infamous Arizona wildfire known as the Yarnell Hill Fire, but even some knowledge of the fateful outcome should not detract from the compelling cinematic narrative. Chances are you have never heard of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, or even what it means for a firefighting crew to be known as “hotshots,” which by all means is not the usual connotation of a showy or flashy person.
A special and honored designation, hotshots are the country’s top wildland firefighters – the Navy SEALs of firefighting. They don’t carry hoses; they literally fight fire with fire, digging lines, cutting down trees, lighting back burns to battle a wildfire. In Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), mentored by Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), sets out to lead a group of 20 men to be the first local city fire crew to achieve the exalted status of hotshots.
It’s a dangerous occupation that compels discipline, teamwork and dedication, but Marsh, by virtue of his temperament, commitment and loyalty to his men, is the right guy to inspire the guys to risk their lives to save others. Though not given to any sentimentality, Marsh is willing to give a chance to Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a drug user that has run afoul of the law as well as an expectant father, to turn his life around by joining the team as a probationary recruit.
In many ways, the story is told from the perspective of McDonough, a fallible character, who has to earn the trust of crew supervisor Marsh, the 20-year veteran who is very much aware of his own imperfections. The emotional core of the movie is the relationship between a troubled, very young novice and a more senior man who has already come to term with the weaknesses in his life and aspires to build the kind of man who is more a credit to the team than a hero.
Another key character is Marsh’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a strong-willed woman who runs their ranch when he’s off fighting fires while also tending to her own business of caring for horses as a farrier. Fire also burns in the relationship between Marsh and his wife Amanda, a couple very much in love but under significant strain. They share a love of the outdoors, but the demands of his job certainly impacts their marriage, given that Marsh is away so much fighting fires. Now it’s obvious that in a disaster film involving fire, the action focus is to be some enormous conflagration. But “Only the Brave” takes its time to put the fire crew through its paces to first achieve the “hotshot” status that does not come easily.
For one thing, not everyone is thrilled that Marsh wants to take a chance with Brendan. Fellow firefighter Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) doesn’t give Brendan the benefit of the doubt, aware of his past and thinking he could hold the crew back from its mission. And yet, Brendan through his actions manages to gain Chris’ trust so that eventually they become roommates and best friends, and there is attention paid to how that relationship develops and changes.
The same can’t quite be said for many of the others on Marsh’s team, but then aside from Marsh’s dependable right-hand man Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), who’s a force of nature in his own right, it’s hard to flesh out the remaining crew members in a memorable sense.More than most action films focused on an elite squad, this one is truly an ensemble piece where the collective efforts of the crew figure immeasurably into the whole of the action scenes.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots quickly establish themselves as true wildfire fighters, and even gain heroic status with the locals for saving a treasured ancient tree during another epic blaze raging out of control. Once having been certified as hotshots, the Granite Mountain team is challenged to fighting several sequences of wildfires that are quite stunning with great visual impact in their combustible intensity.
The rampant flames, however, never really overpower the personal issues that are handled so effectively by Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges, most notably the best fleshed-out characters. Still, the Yarnell Hill Fire, the climactic fiery showdown, demonstrates how the catastrophe of a devastating wildfire makes “Only the Brave” a respectful tribute to real-life heroes.