Mark Reviews Movies

Only the Brave (2017)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell, Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, Thad Luckinbill, Ben Hardy, Scott Haze, Jake Picking, Scott Foxx, Dylan Kenin, Ryan Busch, Kenny Miller, Ryan Jason Cook, Brandon Bunch, Matthew Van Wettering, Michael McNulty, Nicholas Jenks, Sam Quinn, Natalie Hall

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 10/20/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 19, 2017

The temptation had to be there to make Only the Brave into a story about the fires, which ravage forests and plains and homes without discrimination. That's what we expect in a movie about such forces of nature, because disasters and visual effects sell on the big screen. Here, though, is a film in which we barely understand the wildfires that the characters try to extinguish. That seems right, since, at times, even the hotshot crews fighting those fires have difficulty comprehending how fast a fire will move, in what direction it will go, and what the best plan of action in confronting it may be.

They're the best at it, obviously, but such forces of nature are both unpredictable and powerful. Even the most intensive training and comprehensive knowledge—of how a fire moves, how the weather affects its path, and the methods of containing a blaze—can only get the best so far.

The story is based on a true one—that of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the first municipal hotshot crew in the country. Such crews typically were and remain regional operations, assembled from the most elite firefighters in the nation, traveling to any part of the country where a wildfire needs containment.

In the film, the Granite Mountain crew is assembled of locals from Prescott, Arizona, a city surrounded by perfect terrain for a wildfire to start and spread. Once they go through their training, the guys stop seeing such terrain for the natural beauty that it is. After a long hike to the top of a hill, the crew's superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), known as "Supe" to the team and pretty much anyone who respects him (basically anyone who meets him), tells the trainees to take in the beauty one last time. Once they're in their first wildfire, they'll only be able to see the flora as one thing: fuel.

It's a practical way of looking at the world, but it's a practicality formed out of necessity. In the midst of a raging fire, to see trees and brush as anything else would be a distraction, and even a momentary distraction could be the difference between escaping the path of a fire and dying. Everything about the lives of these firefighters seems to change once they realize that fact. Everything in their lives becomes a matter of practicality. When Eric is called in to aid with a nearby wildfire at the start of the film, he and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) take a moment to resolve a fight they had the night before. It's simple and to the point: They bickered, he became irritated because she's smarter at such things than him, and now, it's time for Eric to go. He might not come back, so they put the fight behind them as quickly as possible.

Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer's screenplay (based on a GQ article by Sean Flynn) is founded on this mindset, in which every moment counts—both in the process of fighting a fire and within the lives of the men and their families—because every moment is only a matter of days, hours, or seconds before something could go terribly wrong. All of these men have to live with that understanding, and it seems that understanding that reality is the only way to live with it.

We get a picture of about a handful of the 20-member team: Eric, his second-in-command Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), and the crew's prankster Christopher "Mac" MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). The most prominent member is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a drug addict who has all of his qualifications and is ready to get his life in order after learning that he's going to be a father. Eric gives him a chance, despite the protests of the rest of the crew. Eventually, Mac moves in with Brendan after a failed relationship, despite the fact that Mac gives the new guy the toughest time during training. At a certain point, none of the bickering, in-fighting, and suspicion matters, because all of these men are in the same position, counting on each other to survive and being fully aware that it might not be enough.

The story follows the crew as they make their way from a Type II crew—a supporting role in wildfire containment—to a Type I hotshot crew, with the help of the local fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). It's not much of a plot, because the story is about the interactions between the crew members and their families, as well as an outline of the major fires that the newly appointed hotshot crew fights (from a wildfire at the Grand Canyon, where the team watches as trees fall into the mass crevasse with a fiery explosion, to one just outside their hometown).

The point isn't to emphasize the team's heroism in an abstract or sensational way. It's to involve us in their lives, to portray the tight-knit community of the firefighters and their families, to help us understand the mentality that's required for dangerous work, and to give a sense of living with the knowledge that one moment could destroy everything—these lives, these families, this community, vast swaths of natural land, entire neighborhoods.

The heroism here is in how routine all of this is for these characters. Second thoughts and hesitation do not exist for these men—not only because it could mean death for themselves or their crewmates, but also because they go into each fire knowing what the consequences could be. The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is, ultimately, a tragic one, and Only the Brave serves as a tribute to their sacrifice in the way it respects them as ordinary men who happened to do extraordinary work.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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