REVIEW: Only the Brave [2017]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 133 minutes
    Release Date: October 20th, 2017 (USA)
    Studio: Columbia Pictures / Black Label Media
    Director(s): Joseph Kosinski
    Writer(s): Ken Nolan & Eric Warren Singer

Decide what you live for and what you can live without.

Interagency Hotshot Crews are twenty person teams of Type 1 firefighters that exceed all experience, training, and fitness requirements of that designation. Originated in the 1940s to combat wildfires on a national level, these groups move all over the country to suppress flames and save cities in need. They’re to firefighters what Navy SEALs are to the military. You call them to get the big jobs done and as such are formed for that specific purpose on a federal level. What makes the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots so singular in the history of these organizations is therefore the fact that this group became the first municipal team to be certified. They persevered against all odds to earn a place amongst peers who never gave them credence.

Theirs is a tragic tale of heroism in America, one worthy of cinematic immortalization to ensure we never forget their accomplishments. Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer were therefore tasked with adapting Sean Flynn‘s GQ article entitled “No Exit”, starting their journey with a fire superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) could have stopped short of decimating a town had he been given the certification he deserved and ending with the fateful blaze that brought his men’s names into our public consciousness. But they go further than merely documenting the events that led them to earn the Hotshot title and their place on the Yarnell Hill line. Nolan and Singer honor each with personality, families, regrets, and most especially second chances. More than reenactment, Only the Brave is biography.

Marsh is the central character of this tale being their leader, a man with personal demons and a temperamental ego courtesy of being every bit as good at his job as he thought. We witness his tenacity and frustration right from the beginning—volatility kept in check by the love and empathetic connection of his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). Theirs is a fiery union as yet shrouded in an unknown past, one that has led them into a life of danger and chance. They’ve steeled themselves to the reality of fire’s power and yet it still breaks down their defenses just the same. They’re each other’s rock, confidant, and equal. And they never pretend the stress of balancing marriage and careers is something to be diminished or ignored.

Behind him are second-in-command Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), perpetual bachelor and clown Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), and a brotherhood played by Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, and more. But while they add color and stability, it’s newcomer Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) who’s given co-lead. He’s a junkie seeking to turn his life around after his ex gives birth to their daughter. She becomes a beacon of hope, a catalyst towards saving himself from swift self-destruction. And Marsh somehow gives him that chance to live despite his admitted shortcomings by joining their crew and earning the discipline necessary to evolve. We soon learn this gamble’s a result of Marsh’s past; his ability to hire McDonough an opportunity to pay forward the kindness he was shown years ago.

So there are two parallel trajectories: McDonough striving to be the father he never had and Marsh tirelessly working to bring his team to the next level. Help arrives from the latter’s friend Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), his understanding of what being a Hotshot means to Eric profound. And when the title is bestowed, the city that once lamented the extra cost to retain the team finally realizes the need. But the writers aren’t merely interested in their audience blindly accepting them as heroes because of what they do. They ensure each man is humble—a citizen doing a job that just happens to save lives. We’re allowed to relate to them in this way and pull for every success they achieve. There’s nothing hollow about their depiction.

Credit science fiction director (until now) Joseph Kosinski for much of this because despite the sometimes-swelled score, nothing truly has an air of manipulation. This story doesn’t need help as far as resonance is concerned—the details speak for themselves. His visual flourishes come from a dream sequence of Marsh’s with a flaming bear running towards us, a memory from the past and dark omen of danger to come. Otherwise Kosinski puts his time into the performances and narrative balance necessary to portray each character as a man or woman with flaws and a legitimate drive to accept and overcome them. The moments when those personality shortcomings rise to the surface are the most powerful because they expose the psychological challenges of living inside and outside this job.

It’s no coincidence that the trio at the center contains those with the most regrettable pasts. They each pursue a road of redemption, love driving them just as responsibility keeps them honest. Brolin expertly delivers this internal, oft-repressed anger bubbling to the surface before remorse and/or a need to escape sets in. Marsh has lived with this war within himself for so long that he can acknowledge its presence and work towards suppressing it—a state McDonough hasn’t yet achieved. This provides Teller the more showy performance, his aggression firmly on the surface until time heals his self-loathing and reveals to the others that he’s worthy of their brotherhood. For him the frustration lies in reconciling that which he must do for himself and then for his daughter.

And that leaves Connelly’s Amanda as the lone person who sees the similarities between her husband and his “project.” It’s a position that lets her have perspective they can’t, something that lends her passion and strength to refuse backing down when they don’t want to hear the truth. To me she’s the MVP here because of her ability to remind us that these heroes are merely men. She calls them hypocrites, talks them down from ledges, and rejects being ignored since she too is a part of this life whether she goes into the fire or not. Where most films like Only the Brave dismiss those at home as pawns, this one showcases at least one with full complexity. She brings the inherent Hollywood glorification back to reality.

[1] “Supe” Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) at Lookout Point in Columbia Pictures’ ONLY THE BRAVE.
[2] Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) in Columbia Pictures’ ONLY THE BRAVE.
[3] Granite Mountain Hotshots start the back burn at Yarnell Hills in Columbia Pictures’ ONLY THE BRAVE.

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