FILM REVIEW: "Only The Brave" is an emotionally gripping tribute to real-life heroes
The Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona were deployed to control the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. A crew of 20 men from a town with the population of 650, they were the first municipal firemen to be approved as a hotshot crew, passing the strenuous training required. Referred to as “the Seal Team 6 of firefighters” hotshot crews are highly trained firefighters who deployed to combat forest fires on the front lines, only using the equipment that they can carry out there; primarily chainsaws and shovels.
When I first saw the trailer for Only the Brave, I got serious Mark Wahlberg Deepwater Horizon vibes. The “based on a true story” disaster-trope has been on the rise, with CGI aiding in the recreation of events. Generally, these films tend to deviate focus from the people who were affected by the event; taking up the majority of the screen time with gimmicky heart-tugging to build the tension instead. Only the Brave doesn’t make this mistake. While the fire is consistently present, it's in the background for the majority of the film.
Instead, the focus is on the tight-knit community surrounding the crew, providing real stakes during the breathtaking scenes of actual firefighting. Firefighters always talk about how your crew becomes your family, and the outstanding performances from a veteran cast draw out the audience’s emotion and connection to the story, eliciting a strong reaction by the film’s conclusion.
The characters are types: the new kid who’s trying to turn his life around, the gruff mentor who sees himself in the rookie, the worried wife, the guy who hates the newcomer but then they become best friends. Despite this, the film and the actors are able to turn this around and sell the characters as real people. There was the occasional corny line, my favourite being “It’s not easy sharing your man with the fire”, but it fits well enough within the movie that the audience allows it. The character arcs are predictable at times, but nonetheless, they’re enjoyable.
Josh Brolin is phenomenal in his role as Eric Marsh, the team superintendent. A stubborn and obsessive leader, Brolin embodies the struggle between being a husband and following his passion for getting his crew certified as hotshots. His avoidance of problems in his relationship, pushing of city officials to give his team a chance, and attempts to control a crew of 20 men provides a multi-layered character, and allows us to recognise and understand the thought patterns behind his decisions.
Miles Teller continues to show versatility and strength as an actor with his portrayal of Brendan McDonough, a recovering addict faced with the responsibility of being a father. Teller provides strong scenes that are aided by the director’s choice to mute the sound, leaving the audience to rely on his facial reactions to read the scene, increasing the level of tension and emotion.
Taylor Kitsch’s portrayal of Christopher MacKenzie brings a much-needed level of humour to the film. In such a dramatic film, it’s refreshing that there's a character who talks about the girl he has waiting for him at home with an air of levity.
Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, and Jennifer Connelly have limited screen time. However, the three of them deliver with an emotional driving scene near the conclusion of the film. Despite his smaller role, Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, the local wildland division chief, provides the strongest performance in his delivery of a single line, “This is not good”. By this point, the woman sitting next to me had the tissues out. There isn’t a strong presence of women in this film, understandable considering the subject-matter, but MacDowell was barely present. Connelly has the largest female role as Eric Marsh’s wife, Amanda Marsh. And that is all that she was, Eric Marsh’s wife. Credit to Connelly for taking the clichéd character of "worried wife" and turning her into someone with layers and personality.
Joseph Kosinski’s previous works have been more of the science fiction genre. His strengths in CGI being an asset in Tron: Legacy (his directorial debut), and Oblivion. We would expect a director like Peter Berg or Michael Bay to take on a project like this, but Kosinski shows an ability to transition from a hyper-masculine environment to the gentler one of family and brotherhood. The shift from a group of men playing air guitar to Pearl Jam in a bus, to panicking about baby-proofing an apartment makes the ending all the more effective. The film doesn’t place blame or create an enemy who is at fault for the ending; they show a tragic event that took place just because of a couple of mistakes and bad luck. This leads to the realisation that sometimes, bad things just happen and they’re beyond our control. Only the Brave shines as an emotional and gripping tribute to the real-life heroes of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.