Only The Brave
Only The Brave tells the real life story of a wildfire fighting crew who show incredible resilience in the face of danger. While their story may have ended in tragedy, the movie version honoring their efforts is a triumph.
We’ve seen plenty of movies that dramatize stories from history. Some of them revisit a well-known event or figure as a way to revisit some past glory. Others use their platform to tell a story that not many people may be aware of. Only The Brave does a little bit of both. It tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite wildfire fighters and their efforts to become the first registered hotshot crew to come from a municipal fire district, instead of a federal organization. While telling their story, the film also acts as an homage to their efforts and heroism in wake of the tragedy that befalls them.
The film focuses primarily on two members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; its newest and its most seasoned. Eric Marsh is the leader of the team, and it is through his perseverance and determination that the team ultimately gets the chance to become certified as hotshots. Marsh is 100% committed to the team, which puts a lot of stress on his marriage. On the other end of the spectrum is Brendan McDonough, a drug addict who learns that he is going to unexpectedly become a father. After a run-in with the law, he decides that it is time to turn his life around and approaches Marsh regarding an open position on his team. For Brendan, the time he spends working and training for the crew helps him kick his drug addition, but takes him away from his daughter.
In depicting the life of a hotshot crew, Only The Brave makes its way as a pseudo disaster movie. The destructive nature of wildfires is shown in vivid and haunting detail, as well as all of the other physical and environmental challenges that these men faced while doing their job. The film does a great job of recreating the dangerous and frightening conditions of these natural disasters. Everything from the special effects, to the sounds, to the cinematography helps to clearly convey the deadly capabilities of these fires. There are times when the film is very intense and the audience is on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next.
However, Only the Brave is not just about the working hazards this hotshot team has to face. It also takes a look behind the scenes into the lives of these men (and not just when they are off-duty). In many ways, the emotional challenges that come along with being away from their families and risking their lives on such a frequent basis is just as much of a challenge as the physical hurdles they face on the job. As such, the film splits its time between fighting fires and depicting life as a member of one of these hotshot teams. This really helps to create a multi-dimensioned film because not only do we get to experience the thrills of fighting fires, but we get to look into what it is like for the men who risk their lives doing so.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t complete both of these tasks perfectly. In terms of demonstrating the work these hotshot teams perform, the film largely avoids going into details. We see the characters working, and over time through several different fires the repetition helps fill in some details, but not all. Towards the beginning of the film two new recruits join the team. While they do show the group practicing, I expected the narrative to walk the audience through their procedures and practice in more detail. Instead, the film skips forward frequently. This keeps the pace up, but makes it more difficult for the audience to comprehend what the team is trying to accomplish (or even pick up on some of the script’s lingo). Luckily, the lack of detail actually doesn’t end up hurting the film in the long run. There is enough of a commitment visually to show the job as realistically as possible such that even if the audience doesn't really understand what the characters are doing, it feels right. In splitting the focus between the actual fire fighting and the lives of these fire fighters, some sacrifices had to be made.
When it comes to the off-the-job lives of these firefighters, the film does an apt job of discussing some of the issues that they face. As a hotshot team can be called into duty anywhere in the country, they tend to do a lot of travelling. The film recreates the stress of this demanding schedule by keeping the scenes short in between the actual fire-fighting sequences. The script is able to convey enough specifics through the dialogue so that the brevity of these moments doesn’t compromise their effectiveness. We see McDonough’s child growing bigger each time he sees her as a reminder that he is missing out on part of her childhood by being away. We also get glimpses of Marsh and his wife in moments of intimacy, showing how they take advantage of the limited time that they have together. The film focuses on the importance of family and also how the support these men received from their families is crucial to their success.
Joseph Kosinski has thus far been known as a world-building director. His previous films were both science fiction (Tron: Legacy, and Oblivion) relying heavily on sound and vision. Sophisticated special effects were married to soundtracks created by popular artists to create production-heavy films. Only The Brave turns out to be a good change of pace for this young director. While Kosinski's proficiency in special effects is still at the forefront, the fact that this film is meant to pay respects to real life people helps it become more character focused. If there was a complaint about Kosinksi’s previous films, it was that they struggled in their narrative, perhaps leaning too heavily on the special effects. Only the Brave does not have this problem. With less focus on the presentation than in his previous films, Kosinski finds a good balance between visual and emotional impact.
While the script is able to adequately convey both the physical and emotional challenges these men faced on a daily basis, it is really the performances which help to make the film so effective. Josh Brolin portrays Marsh as a man truly committed to his job. He keeps a straight face, only smiling when he talks about how proud he is of his men, or in conveying his love for his wife. But Brolin also brings subtleties to his performance. His short temper shows a frustration for the lack of progress he faces, and his solemnity is a clue to the continued challenges he faces in his professional and personal lives. Miles Teller makes a good impression as well, playing McDonough. Teller’s comedic deadpan helps to sell a character who is a bit immature due to his age, but he also has the acting chops to show us McDonough’s growth as he overcomes one challenge after another. Taylor Kitsch, Jeff Bridges, and Jennifer Connelly round out the supporting cast, and each of them are solid in their roles.
Only The Brave ends up being one of those rare movies that is incredibly well-rounded. It tells a deeply compelling story about a topic we haven’t seen too much in film. It is both action-packed and dramatically impactful. The A-list cast is as great as you would expect them to be, and the direction is perfectly suited for the subject matter and method of storytelling. The film isn’t trying to push the envelope, but it also didn’t need to. The film’s mission is to properly honor the firefighters that are depicted, and in all regards, Only The Brave completes that mission.
What's Bad: Details are a bit limited, film's hectic pace cuts some corners in the storytelling department, and the maybe a little bit of a disappointment in how the film sticks to conventions.