Synopsis – Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire.
My Take – Is it just me or there has been a sudden rise in films chronicling real life disaster events? Films like The 33, Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, are among the few features that have provided a fantastic presentation of the events involving the men who risk their lives on a daily basis. This film, adapted by writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, for the screen from a harrowing GQ article “No Exit” by Sean Flynn, looks into the lives of ordinary, sometimes- flawed men and how they tackle their ordinary life along with firefighting and controlling a wildfire in the countryside, all the while celebrating their indomitable courage and self-sacrifice. Personally, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a Hotshot before I watched this film, nor did I know that it was based on a true story and while this Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) directed vehicle is deliberately-paced and fairly formulaic, I was blown away by the tragic event, and the extraordinary way it was presented on screen. The film takes a compelling and poignant look at these men with real struggles and issues of their own, along with this little known tragic event, herby making it one of the best character-driven and emotional films I have seen this year. The story follows Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a superintendent of a municipal squad doing Type II fire mitigation duty, viz. clearing brush and burning fire lines relatively far from the danger itself. That diminished status is a sore point for Eric to get promoted and certified as Hot Shots, which allows his team to combat wild fires on the front line, Eric seeks the help of the division chief and his close confidant Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to convince the town mayor to help get them evaluated. Despite resident jocks & former crew members like Jesse (James Badge Dale), Chris (Taylor Kitsch) & sixteen others on his side, Eric decides to also take a chance on Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who till a few months ago was the local slacker with no ambition or plans for a future, that is until he finds out that Natalie (Natalie Hall), a girl he dated for five months is pregnant with his child.
Meanwhile, Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse whisperer, has been struggling with their marriage, as she wants a family, but Eric is too focused on his fire crew and away all the time battling fires. But the event that will test them all, is a wildfire in Yarnell which is beginning to storm out of control. The premise of this film is relatively simple. A crew of firefighters is out to become the next crew of Hot Shots, and they will do whatever it takes, which also entails hiring some fresh and willing talent. The film dives into their lives outside of work and really invests you in each one of their jobs. I was quite riveted throughout each one of the fires, and I loved how it didn’t take it too seriously to the point of depression. With a nice blend of bickering and action, these characters were more fleshed out and likable than I was expecting them to be, which really added a level of intensity to the overall movie. The trailers for the film make this look like a Michael Bay-style American firemen bro-down, but director Joseph Kosinski does a great job of balancing the acts of heroism with dramatic touches that may be clichéd, but hit home nevertheless. The film does an excellent job of showing the danger that the volunteers have to endure and it also shows the bond between the men who put their lives on the line each day. The film also goes out of its way to show the stress that the job puts on the men’s home life. Films like this are tasked with an almost impossible balance — on one hand they need to be dramatic enough to hold the attention of an audience who may be unfamiliar or uninterested in the subject, and they also often try to serve as a tribute (and in some cases a memorial) for the real-life individuals. It’s a tricky balance, but director Joseph Kosinski does an admirable job of riding that precarious edge. The first half of the film traces the team’s struggle to attain their lauded Hotshots status, as they deal with the local and federal bureaucracies that are hindering their progress, and ultimately putting the local residents in greater harm’s way by blocking the formation of a local Hotshot team. There is plenty of camaraderie to go around, built up over months of training together and fighting fire alongside each other, such that Brendan and Chris will just overcome their initial enmity but become best buddies in a way that feels completely authentic. Due focus is also given to the families of these men, in particular Eric’s fierce but loving relationship with his strong- willed wife Amanda as well as Brendan’s strained relationship with the Natalie and their baby daughter. But the build up with every character that are so distinct from each other. Seeing them bond and form a family friendship is what hits really hard with the film. You see rivals form a brotherhood friendship. Characters making a life changing decisions to better themselves. The character development is well done in the film. Even though we do not individually know all 20 members of the crew, because that would obviously take too long to go into full detail on, we still connect with all members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watching them work, interact, and celebrate. Two thirds into the film, we are aware that they are all heroes, and therefore people we care about. The film realized this concept excellently, and added so much to the emotional side of the story. And oh boy, did I feel some emotions towards the end of this film.
As the film progresses, we start to see that Teller‘s Brendan has his own subplot trying to connect with his new family. At first I was skeptical about this and wondered why this character was getting way more screen time than the other members of the crew, and why he had his own backstory. This works for the film all because of the resolution. The sudden death of these men led to not only Brendan feeling guilty, but us audience members as well and in realizing that our guilt is completely unjustified, we feel an emotional connection with everyone still in the picture. We learn that only the bravest men can be Hotshots, and they are not afraid of any tragedies that may occur and in this moment, we know that these men should deserve our fullest amount of respect, for they have saved countless lives and are the actual heroes we all dream of becoming. In fact, the film is as much homage to the men as it is honoring their wives and children who endure long stretches of their absence and persistent anxiety over their safety and well-being. Deserving of special mention are the emotionally charged scenes between Eric and Amanda, which not only portray the complexities of being in a marriage with someone so consumed by a profession that may one day claim his very life, but also later on underline the unavoidably profound grief felt by his subsequent demise. The visual storytelling in this film was phenomenal, because we see how mighty and powerful these forest fires are, and truly realize how brave these men are, getting so close to the fire. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, the film captures the stunning and terrible beauty of fire. In one mesmerizing scene, Eric reminisces about an awful inferno in which a bear came running out of the forest, completely engulfed in flames. That haunting image becomes an important metaphor as the story progresses. The film could have gone in any number of directions, many of them disappointing or shallow. Instead, director Kosinski has told a layered and ultimately heroic story in all its complexity. It’s not a documentary, by any means; the filmmakers have no particular responsibility to hew to the real story at every turn. Instead they seek a greater truth, trying to get at what makes someone with courage and strength and weakness and fear risk life and limb in the face of deadly danger — in other words, what makes a real hero. Only cons I have are ones I had to nit-pick, like the film is definitely a slow watch at times and its run time is slightly longer than the material needs it to be, a few of the relationship dramas/arguments seemed contrived, and while they did a great job explaining the countermeasures they take to battle the fires, there still is some confusion to their methods, and it would have been nice to know some of the other members of crew better. Coming to the performances, the film is anchored by Josh Brolin, who brings in yet another fine performance, as the leader who is running the show with enough dignity, gravitas and pathos. Apart from him, there is the legendary Jeff Bridges, gets to flex some serious acting muscle and adds to the star value of this flick. Miles Teller was surprisingly sympathetic and likable. Jennifer Connelly, likewise, provides an emotional reminder of just how talented she is, losing it in one memorable scene and inviting the audience to follow suit. Andie MacDowell, Taylor Kitch and James Badge Dale are outstanding too. Each and every one of the supporting roles gave their very best as well, making this a very believable and realistic team. On the whole, ‘Only the Brave’ is an emotionally charged tearjerker that is not just a fitting tribute, but also a well-acted outstanding film.
Directed – Joseph Kosinski
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 134 minutes