Following weeks of national coverage reporting the devastation of wildfires on the West Coast, Columbia Pictures’ impeccably-timed Only the Brave blazes into theaters. Originally slated for a September release, this firefighter drama was delayed due to a distributor dispute, and singes even deeper as a result. Joseph Kosinski’s memorial of the legendary Granite Mountain hotshots may traverse familiar territory and lack subtlety at times – but with multiple powerhouse performances and heart-rending subject matter, Only the Brave is an indomitable tribute.
This robust fireman memoir chronicles the ascendance and sudden loss of the Prescott, Arizona-based Granite Mountain “hotshots” – an elite designation awarded to firefighter crews who specialize in containing hazardous fire outbreaks in remote locations. Out of a crew of 20, including a pair of decade-plus veterans and four rookies, 19 men perished in an unpredictably violent blaze that erupted on June 30, 2013. With the exception of 9/11, the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire was America’s largest loss of firefighters in a single incident in eighty years.
Only the Brave focuses on Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a hotshot of two years who only survives the disaster due to being appointed to observe conditions from up the hill. McDonough is a pothead and a burnout when the unexpected birth of his daughter motivates him to take up firefighting and clean up his act. Before Granite Mountain supervisor Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) takes a chance on him, McDonough is on the fast track to rock bottom. Under Marsh’s nurturing influence, however, “Donut” gains 19 new brothers and a new lease on life.
Teller is commendable in the latest of a string of impressive dramatic roles including Whiplash and Bleed for This before tackling similar content as a soldier in Thank You for Your Service. Josh Brolin stuns as hotshot supervisor Eric Marsh: soft-spoken, honorable, and strong as an ox. Jennifer Connelly submits distinguished work as Marsh’s world-battered yet tenacious and loving wife. Jeff Bridges and Taylor Kitsch also thrive in supporting roles that rely on more than masculine ruggedness. In short, Only the Brave is one of the best acting showcases of 2017.
The tribute is Joseph Kosinksi’s third feature as director, who before this helmed the sci-fi films Tron: Legacy from 2010, and Oblivion from 2013 starring Tom Cruise. While Tron and Oblivion were hampered by troubled scripts, the director boasted an undeniable prowess in executing smooth exhibitions of staggering visuals. In Only the Brave, Kosinski trades in digitized light cycles and combat drones for naturalistic woodlands and ash, and fits right at home. His third undertaking sees the filmmaker finally marrying his technical skills with a script that is worthy in merit.
He doesn’t disappoint, either. Kosinski’s depictions of the massive fires are horrific, while the sweeping aerial shots of timbered hillsides are ravishing. In one splendid sequence, the hotshots take in a spectacle across the Grand Canyon after a hard day’s work. Distant burning forestry paves way for occasional towering trees to tumble off the cliff, exploding in visceral displays of orange fireworks. In an unlikely shift from the mechanical to the organic, Kosinski only boosts his proficiency in transition. With a superb cast, the film excels dramatically to match.
Only the Brave features nuanced characters bonding over the course of life’s obstacles as they embark on a particularly demanding and risky profession. Despite leading up to a cataclysmic tragedy, however, this is no dreary affair. The film explores serious subject matter such as addiction, and the toll service takes on relationships, but meaningful diversions into comic relief are tactfully interwoven. Only the Brave is a masterly crowd-pleaser that will have audiences cheering when the boys achieve hotshot status, and weeping when they sacrifice their lives.
Like most crowd-pleasers, however, that label comes with baggage, and Only the Brave is unmistakably manipulative at times. An element of beautifully rendered symbolic imagery, that of a bear charging in flames – is reduced by a conspicuous monologue. In addition, the film is like many before it, and engages in unabashed hero worship. But this complaint is easy to forgive. These men are deserving of such an affectionate memorial. Thankfully, they aren’t painted as perfect, and their shortcomings are explored to profound effect for those of us still living.
ONLY THE BRAVE
Columbia Pictures, Black Label Media, Di Bonaventura Pictures, and Condé Nast Entertainment.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
Written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on the article No Exit by Sean Flynn for GQ.
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch and Jennifer Connelly.
Released October 20, 2017.