Firefighters do something remarkable: when everyone is running away from the fire, they sprint towards it and engage directly, in the hopes of defeating it, thus saving lives.
We don't hear enough about their efforts, only reading about their efforts in the headlines when they happen to perish in their pursuits. Only The Brave, Joseph Kosinski's film detailing the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is about one of those bittersweet occasions.
Prepare for a movie that aims for the heart and hits hard, repeatedly.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are essentially the "Navy Seals of firefighters", tackling the largest wildfires in the United States, a level that they didn't reach easily, becoming the only municipality to create a group of hotshots. Led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), these guys fought fire with fire, literally. They'd get dropped into the hottest temps and create a line of fire with brush and wood to suffocate and put out the larger fire heading for small towns.
On the job, they were heroes, as one nurse in the film calls them. Off the job, they were ordinary flawed souls trying to raise kids, extend marriages, and be happy.
While the fire scenes are extremely well choreographed and thrilling, Kosinski's film is at its best when it's spending time with newcomer Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, knocking out another true story role) as he alienates drug use instead of responsibility for a change, or Marsh's own demons away from the job. Like veterans in the military, these men used the job to submerge their own problems, and in the process, they saved lives.
Instead of making the film all about the fires and the saves, Kosinski aims for the heart by showing us the men away from the danger of fire and in the regular chaos of everyday adulting. The screenwriting team of Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer tackled Sean Flynn's GQ article entitled "No Exit", and build the world of these men and their women up to the disastrous day in Yarnell back in 2013.
It's nearly impossible to walk into this film without knowing the specifics of fates of these men, but do your best, because the payoff is that much greater. Like Peter Berg's Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Only The Brave avoids the small talk and goes for passion with its storytelling.
The acting is top notch across the board. Brolin may be the most underrated actor working today, switching from Marvel bad guy to real life heroes to Coen Brothers leading man and back to Deadpool's main nemesis. He's an authentic man and slips so easily into the roles he chooses, and Marsh is a perfect fit for those charming yet tortured eyes of his. Teller has played three real life people in the past two years, and gives McDonough the depth that is required to make the character come across the page. Dale is a classic face of film and no stranger to real life heroes after his work in Michael Bay's 13 Hours.
Jennifer Connelly makes a fine return to the big screen as Amanda Marsh, and shares more than a few scenes with Brolin that resonate with any married couple balancing dreams and love. Jeff Bridges puts in good work as Duane Steinbrink, the guy who worked closely with the hotshots. You may even see Taylor Kitsch pop up among the cast.
Do the filmmakers take some liberties with the true story and spruce it up with some extra emotion and drama? Sure, but they don't avoid the honest parts of the tale, and that is the most important part. You can add an extra conversation that may or may not have taken place to condense a conflict, but you have to show the potent material for the story to work. You won't see a single Hollywood true story without some embellishment, but the best ones don't shy away from the difficult parts. Kosinski lets you see it all in all its untouched glory.
Only The Brave will make you appreciate firefighters even more. It's two hours of raw emotion and fiery drama that doesn't slow down for anyone. You will learn a thing or two about fighting wildfires and also find out how these men live with themselves when they aren't working. It's a dual sided treat of a film that I highly recommend.
The movie is very timely, as Northern California is being overrun by wildfires right now. Losses from the wildfires up there top three billion dollars and over 14,000 homes have been lost. A 17 year old boy was the 43rd victim to fall during these unstoppable forces of nature. The Granite Mountain Hotshots couldn't stop the fires; they only hoped to contain it.
Only The Brave is a potent film that can educate and make you feel at the same time. It's still in theaters, and deserves a look.