Director Joseph Kosinski takes the heartbreaking tale of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in his late that fought to contain wildfires and gives it the most appropriate of tellings. He never favors heavily on the melodrama, technicalities or patriotism that could ooze from such a story. This could have easily been a soft drama for families and an appropriate tribute to the many firefighters that attended the preview screening. Despite keeping the film on its expected track, Kosinski earns the tears that come with this tragic story.
The film treats the Arizona based Hotshots as men that are devoted and heroic, but still rowdy and flawed. They’re led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), dedicated to making the tough call more than adequately communicating it. He struggles to get his group of hard-working firefighters approved to be Hotshots but has to keep his attitude in check. He has a loving relationship with his ranch-owning wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), but their relationship turns rocky with extended hours and the debate over having a baby. Only with a little cheerful encouragement and strategy from the former fire chief and family member Duane (Jeff Bridges) can he finally make a difference.
There’s a lot of stories to take in with the many men of this unit, and we only follow a handful. The most prominent is Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a loser of a pot-smoker that with a pregnant girlfriend that wants nothing to do with him. He’s rough, but Marsh thinks he can mold him. Sure enough, he keeps up with the rowdy bunch and gets his life together enough to be a dad. The rest of the crew just seem like decent and average guys, chatting about ladies and boasting about their band.
It’s the little details that make Only The Brave stand out from the pack of other heroic and tragic tales. I didn’t expect much from Brendan and his baby, suspecting we’d only see him holding his daughter a few times. But there’s a surprisingly sweet sequence where he and another Hotshot struggle with the baby running a fever and they scramble with how to handle it. One of the Hotshots happens to know a nurse and the crisis is averted, with Brendan admitting that was the most frightening moment of his life. Amanda also has her own experience of frustrations, struggling to maintain the ranch on her own and push her new business of shoeless horses to local farmers. She may have to share her man with the fires, but she gets equal enough time in this story to be more than just the worrying wife back home.
The fires these boys combat are as terrifying as they are believable. They approach their strategies with a calm demeanor, committed to digging trenches and cutting off the path of flames, but are aware that one miscalculation could lead to a swift death. There’s a moment when they start spreading flames with a device that spits out embers, only for it to turn into a flamethrower when the mixture gets too hot, forcing Brendan to launch it into the fire. Brendan is slightly panicked about what went wrong, but Eric brushes it off as just being a bad batch. He’s more concerned about promptly leaving the area before the flame spread faster. And when the team tackles the massive Yarnell Hill Fire, the mission turns dark and harsh, all of them striving to be brave amid the most horrific of disasters.
While I didn’t feel as though I genuinely grasped the detailed technical aspects of firefighting, I was never out of the loop with these characters. They speak plainly and to the point, rarely taking moments to deliver some overly dramatic line. The film isn’t devoid of these, however. I set my expectations a little low in the first shot where Eric has a dream about a bear made of flames, running through the woods as it growls and leaves a blaze in its wake. This vision is seen at least three more times, and the movie must stop at one moment so Eric can spell out this imagery for the audience. There are also a few scenes in the third act that are a little too on-the-nose with the themes at play. Eric doesn’t want to let Brendan transfer for a safer gig with his family but realizes that it’s Eric’s hangups bringing this distaste.
There’s no significant surprise with how Only The Brave plays out. We watch the tragedy unfold with dignity, the tears flow in the aftermath and are treated to photos of the real Granite Mountain Hotshots to close the film. It’s built to be a tear-jerking tribute but assembled with great care to make a movie of character and courage, so the inevitable event that claims many lives carries a more substantial impact of heroism than the apparent acknowledgments.
Kosinski could have favored more comfortable melodrama and emphasize the wildfires, but he manages to avoid the many pitfalls of adapting such a story. Much like the Hotshots, his film manages to make the quick calls of where to take a tale about family, fire, and frustration. I’ve sat through so many of these real stories of tragedy and heroism meant to evoke tears, most of the audience was quickly won over to weep by the simplest of drama. This film earns its watery-eyed audience and nearly brought me to that emotional pique as well, thanks to Kosinski’s moving portrayal of these people and events. Calling the film moving is a given for those invested in the lives of firefighters, but it carries a more critical impact and grander surprise for those not as involved or aware of these events.