A “Hotshot.” In most conversations it’s a backhanded compliment. In Only the Brave, there is no greater honor. Joseph Kosinski directs a true story about The Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of firefighters who battled forest fires across the country. The film is in the same vein as other recent true life stories, such as Patriot’s Day, Lone Survivor, or any other Mark Walhberg film. It highlights the camaraderie shared among those brave enough to put themselves in harm’s way.
The film mostly centers on Eric Marsh or “Supe” (Josh Brolin) and Brendan McDonough or “Donut” (Miles Teller), two characters who are searching for redemption. Marsh, a recovering alcoholic, wants to turn a group of 19 young men into “Hotshots.” The Granite Mountain Hotshots were the first municipal Hotshots in the country. It’s a distinction that required four years for them to make. Only the Brave does a great job of taking us through the team’s ups-and-downs as they try to accomplish the feat. Brolin is equally as laudatory in this performance. The role of Marsh fits him perfectly, and is fairly close to his performance in No Country for Old Men.
McDonough is the other redemptive character, however, much younger than Marsh. He’s a recovering drug addict with a criminal record and a newly born daughter. Miles Teller really is an underrated actor, mostly known for his lack of anger management in roles, such as Whiplash. I don’t think Teller is really aware of what kinds of roles he wants, but he does hit here. McDonough is a person that allows Teller to show greater restraint and age.
Other Hotshots join the act, such as Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) and Christopher McKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). Both actors play the perfect “bros,” while actors like Jeff Bridges (Duane Steinbrink) and Jennifer Connelly (Amanda Marsh) demonstrate the sacrifices made by others outside of the inner circle of Hotshots. When making real life stories, the tricky part always comes when deciding who to focus on and how many characters will receive screen time. Only the Brave balances that challenge fairly well. And while the strongest points of the film are the portions that focus on how this team came together, by choosing Marsh and McDonough to focus on, two men who are dealing with extreme personal situations, it steers away from the danger of creating a whole film about “bros.”
The film ultimately culminates at the Yarnell Hill Fire. A relative speck of a blaze that turns into an uncontrollable beast. It is probably the most “exciting” portion of the film as it quite literally put me at the edge of my seat. Having not known of the Yarnell Hill Fire, I had thought that one of the weaker portions of the film was the relative safety the crew experienced. Yes, forest fires are never safe (And the CGI used for the forest fires was amazing). Nevertheless, through the entirety of the film, it never felt like the crew was ever in any significant danger. That changed with the Yarnell Hill Fire. Kosinski does a fantastic job of lulling the audience into safety, and building the film to an intense end. The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident for firefighters since 9/11.
Honestly, typically I’m not a fan of movies like Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon, or Lone Survivor (Before anyone reports me, that doesn’t mean I don’t like Mark Walhberg). All of the above are good workman like films. Only the Brave nearly fell into the category of “workman like.” However, the more I thought about the film, the more I saw that I missed the point.
Only the Brave isn’t just a memorial to these men. It’s a celebration of their young lives, their friendships, and the work they put in to becoming Hotshots, or the best of the best. Because while being a “Hotshot” is backhanded to some, it’s a helping hand to others.
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Photo credit: AZcentral.com