What kind of lunatic fights forest fires on the ground and up close?
It’s a question I hadn’t really considered until driving home from ONLY THE BRAVE, the new film that tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of elite, front-line firefighters. It’s the question at the heart of the film, and it is a question that I’m still not entirely sure I can answer. I look at the fires raging right now in northern California and the people that are standing face to face with them, doing their best to minimize the awesome damage they are doing, and I am blown away by the courage it must take to walk into something that everyone else is wisely running from.
This is Joseph Kosinski’s most successful film to date, and the thing I like most about is that it seriously considers the lives of people who work jobs that other people not only would not, but most likely could not. It treats these lives with dignity and respect without turning them into cartoon superhero versions of themselves, and it makes a case for the nobility of this kind of work that feels honest. It’s not just firefighters that the film pays tribute to, either; instead, it seems to be saying that people often find the community they need to find, and often we need our work just as much as our work needs us. That’s a complicated, adult idea, and Only the Brave surprised me because it is a complicated, adult film.
There is certainly a portion of the film that is naked hero worship, and why not? If you live in any area that was ever saved by the real-life firefighters who inspired the film, I would imagine these men are beloved to you. The first half of the film is dedicated to the fight to turn this group of men into a sanctioned, licensed hotshot crew, which is a specific designation. That’s 20 firefighters who are considered the elite in terms of training and physical ability. They are dropped into the worst parts of the worst fires, and they have to be able to work without any back-up or support for long periods of time. It is thankless, brutal work, and these men are desperate to get permission to do it.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the head of the team, the one who fights the hardest to get them certified, and this some of the most open-hearted and vulnerable work I’ve ever seen Brolin do. He’s such an interesting actor to me. There have been consecutive years where he’s done nothing of note, and then he’ll turn around and crush it for ten films in a row. He’s on a streak right now, and a lot of his success is due to how careful he is in terms of which filmmakers he chooses to work with.
I would not have guessed that Kosinski had this in him. I pretty much hate TRON: Legacy. I think it’s gorgeous, and he’s technically very able, but it is a film with zero heart or soul. Oblivion felt clever but empty. Certainly, he brings his considerable technical ability to the task of making the forest fires feel real and immersive, but the quiet stuff is where the film shines, and I have to give him credit for that. He put together a terrific cast, and then he made room for them to play some really lovely, small human moments. Looking at how he treats the relationships that exist between these men that allow them to face these dangers together, he may be a truly inspired choice for the Top Gun sequel next year.
Before sitting down for this film, I didn’t know what a hotshot crew was, and part of what makes Only the Brave compelling is how good it is at explaining what the term means, how hard it is to get certified, and how stacked the odds were against Marsh and his men. The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer is terrific at laying out the human drama of simply building this team, and the film is cast well.
Miles Teller plays Brendan McDonough, and the film is built as a sort of redemption arc for him. He’s a pretty substantial fuck-up at the start of the film, but he wants to do better. For him, joining Marsh’s crew is a life-or-death act, and the film excels at showing how fighting fires is more than just a job for most of these men. Marsh’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), works with horses that have been traumatized and damaged, helping to rehabilitate them, and the film shows how demanding and emotional her work is as well, making her a perfect match for Marsh. Their marriage isn’t painted as an easy storybook, though, and I thought it was very honest about the emotional demands that these kinds of high-risk jobs make of the people who work them. Showing how hard it is to hold a family together in the face of a near-constant threat of death makes it clear just how important family really is.
One of the guys on the crew is Chris MacKenzie, a brash and rowdy tomcat as the film begins, and one of the arcs in the film is the way Chris gradually matures into a family man. We were 20 minutes into the story before I realized Chris was played by Taylor Kitsch, and I think it’s the best work he’s ever done. He’s having a strong year so far, with good work in the otherwise ridiculous American Assassin, but this is the kind of role he was designed to play. And, yes, I said designed, because it’s clear this kid rolled out of a lab somewhere that was engaged in weaponized charm experiments. He has charisma to burn here, and it’s nice watching what starts as a vaguely toxic version of dudehood mature into something more grounded as the story unfolds.
Jeff Bridges does nice supporting work in a small role, and the entire fire team is filled out with actors doing invisible work. It just feels like a working fire team, like a real community. James Badge Dale is one of those guys you hire when you need “grounded decency,” and he delivers here in a big way as Jesse Steed, who is Marsh’s right-hand man. Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Scott Haze, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, and Jake Picking all do terrific work, etching memorable details to help sell the reality of this team, and I was moved by the way Brandon Bunch (one of the actual Granite Mountain Hotshots) shows up playing Garret Zuppiger, who was his actual best friend until the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire. It’s a lovely tribute to someone he lost, and a canny casting choice by Kosinski.
And, yes, there is tragedy here. That’s the whole reason the story is being told. The second half of the film moves from major fire to major fire, and we get to see the crew start to really come together as they get the chance to work as a team. Everything is building to the story that launched them to national attention, which, sadly, is a crushingly sad one, and Kosinski takes his time getting us there so that when it finally does land on us, it hurts. He makes you feel the loss that Prescott, AZ felt, and he personalizes it so you can see just how much these men risked each and every time they showed up for work.
Claudio Miranda’s work is tremendous here, and it’s more than just “pretty” cinematography. There have been plenty of filmmakers who have been seduced by the idea of trying to get fire “right” onscreen, but it’s a tricky thing. To really sell the awesome destructive power of these forest fires, it’s more about immersion, and that’s what Miranda gets so right here. The score by Joseph Trapanese is appropriate and subtle, and even when the film gets big, it seems to resist spoon-feeding you emotion, a choice I always admire. It is clear that Kosinski is growing up as a filmmaker, and his technical collaborators all elevate his efforts here.
Only the Brave is a fitting tribute to real-life heroes, but it dares to go further than that, exploring the things that drive someone to heroism in the first place. It is smart, adult and deeply felt, and it’s a truly unexpected pleasure, especially considering the harrowing emotional nature of the story.
Running time: 134 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic