Only the Brave
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are an elite team of firefighters operating out of Arizona. They risk their lives and are often the last line of defense between the fire and the citizens they are trying to protect. Only the Brave tells their story in a based on fact film that is both exciting and compelling and does their heroics justice.
The members of the hotshots are shown as a well-oiled machine. But the film also establishes the personal lives of a few of them. It did a surprisingly good job of making me care about some of the individual characters, so that when they put themselves in dangerous situations, I was actually invested in what happened to them. Those characters include Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the head of the crew and his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly, an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind), new recruit Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, who burst onto the scene in 2014 with his starring role in Whiplash) who is trying to turn his life around after the birth of his daughter, Marsh’s first in command, Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) and seven time Oscar nominee (and one time winner) Jeff Bridges as Marsh’s mentor, Duane.
All of these actors are in roles that fit their particular skill-sets perfectly. After only a couple lines of dialogue, you get a sense for who these people are and what their relationship is with each other. Good casting can eliminate the need for lengthy exposition. Sometimes, subtle dialogue and good performances can make deep backstories unnecessary. Such is the case here.
Only the Brave (129 minutes without the end credits) looks like an action epic about heroic firefighters battling a forest fire. While there is a decent amount of firefighting action, it is a more intimate film than it appears. The screenplay (based on a GQ article by Sean Flynn), written by Ken Nolan (who also wrote the screenplay for 2011’s Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2014 for co-writing American Hustle), spends time with these men away from the job and really gets to know them. Instead of holding them at arm’s length and putting them on a pedestal as brave heroes, it makes them people. By showing who they really are it also shows what they are fighting for. This makes what they do even braver and more heroic.
The drama is never pumped up. It does not need to be. The fire is dramatic enough. There is no soap opera melodrama away from the job either. The two main subplots may be fairly standard for this kind of material, they are handled with respect to the real-life people being portrayed.
The first subplot focuses on the Marsh’s. Eric loves his wife, but is devoted to his men. Because of what he does, not only is he risking his life, he is also away from home a lot. Amanda, a horse trainer, knows that is the price she has to pay for loving this man. However, it still puts a lot of stress on their marriage. Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly are very good in their scenes together at showing their tension, while trying not to allow it to get in the way of what time they actually get to spend together.
The other side story is about Brendan. At the beginning of the film, he finds out that a women he had a brief relationship with is now six months pregnant. Initially, he responds to this news by getting drunk and getting himself arrested. However, he cleans himself up (both drugs and alcohol) in time for his daughter’s birth, and looks to give his professional life a focus by joining Marsh’s crew. Teller and Brolin do not share a lot of screen time together, but their scenes do a good job of furthering the movie’s theme of brotherhood. The rest of Brendan’s story is about how he uses the job to better himself so he can be a father to his baby girl.
Only the Brave was directed by Joseph Kosinski. Kosinski’s only two previous feature film directorial credits were for science fiction films Tron Legacy (2010) and Oblivion (2013). In his first foray into the modern day, he mainly stays out of the way and allows this story to tell itself. There are no outsized dramatic flourishes or forced attempts to make what is happening onscreen feel more important. The story itself is powerful enough that it does not need it and Kosinski is wise enough not to impose himself on it.
Only the Brave is probably not going to win any awards. And, by the looks of it, it is not going to make a killing at the box-office either. But that does not mean it should be ignored. It features a very good cast being directed well in an entertaining film based on a pretty darn interesting true story. Admittedly, I was not expecting much coming in and was very pleasantly surprised. I left the theater with a true admiration for the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the sacrifices they make to do their work. This movie may be a little formulaic in the way it tells their story, but when the formula works, it can be very effective. And it works very well here.
4¼ out of 5
Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh
Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough
Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh
James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed
Taylor Kitsch as Christopher MacKenzie
Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink
Andie MacDowell as Marvel Steinbrink
Geoff Stults as Travis Turbyfill
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer