“Only the Brave” Movie Review

     There are no surprises in director Joseph Kosinski’s “Only the Brave”, particularly if you are aware of the true story being told which occurred just four short years ago when a fire fighting group known as the Granite Mountain Hot Shots found themselves trapped while battling the Yarnell Hill fire near Phoenix, Arizona.  For the most part, screenwriters Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) and Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”) do justice to the 19 men who died on that fateful day, as the film functions as a clear tribute to the sacrifices fire fighters make and how quickly a situation can turn from manageable to completely out of control.  Their source material is based on Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit”, while also attempting to build a few of the members of the elite unit as the story’s main characters.  This strategy leaves most of the real life firefighters anonymous, but does allow the audience to see the human side of those at the top.

     To tell the story, Kosinski focuses on Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the Superintendent of the unit which was based out of Prescott, Arizona.  Marsh is highly dedicated to his work, spending most of his time there and away from his wife of six years, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), causing frequent issues between the couple.  Marsh has for sometime set a goal for his unit to be certified as “Hot Shots”, which signifies they have the proven skills to correctly set their own fire lines to effectively stop an approaching wild fire from continuing to burn everything in its path and destroying nearby towns.  When the film begins, Marsh and his crew are relegated to the rear, doing mostly prep work and training for the day they are called upon to move forward to the front lines.  

     Through his interactions with local fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), we get the idea Marsh has a checkered past with those in the fire department and is having problems getting enough respect from those in the higher ranks to get his team the opportunity to be certified.  Meanwhile, the high demands of the job and the more steady profession of instead fighting structural fires seems to consistently take men away from Marsh’s team, leaving open slots to be filled.  Kosinski fills the opening act with scenes of shirtless men lifting weights, running hills, and doing various fire training drills, so as to demonstrate the high level of confidence and testosterone in the room.  And just as all of this reaches a crescendo, in walks Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug addict who recently had a daughter and now clean, needs a job in order to fulfill his new responsibilities.

     Even though the focus remains on Marsh and McDonough for the entire film, it’s still tough to buy the seemingly quick transition from a guy sitting on a couch smoking a crack pipe, to becoming a full fledged forrest fire fighter capable of the immense physical tasks the job requires.  Fellow firefighter, Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) consistently reminds McDonough of this through endless hazing that seems to be the norm amongst this bunch, but anyone who has worked in a typically male dominated profession such as this, will likely approve of the depiction.  Beyond the constant training, Kosinski relies on scenes with the entire crew and their families having barbecues or dancing together at a country music bar in order to establish the fact this is a tight knit group, which sadly comes off as generic and unoriginal.

     Eventually, Steinbrink is able to get Marsh and his unit the chance they had been waiting for, as they are certified as Hot Shots and are thrust into the front lines of the dangerous wildfires caused by the dry desert climate throughout Arizona.  The main characters are put into situations of peril where they show true heroism during the second act, which features the Granite Mountain Hot Shots at their very best.  We see into Marsh’s mind as he tactically considers the options his and the other teams present have in order to effectively stop a fire from forcing people out of their homes and minimizing property loss.  In certain moments, he actually talks to the fires from afar, as if it is adversary on the other side of a battle field.  But the downside here is we never get to really know anyone else, as the rest of the team remains completely faceless.  Think back to James Cameron’s “Aliens” and the Space Marines who are sent to investigate the loss of communication on LV-426.  The team, which is nearly as large as the Hot Shots in this film, continually feast on the memorable lines supplied to them courtesy of Cameron’s script, leaving several of the Marines, who die early at the hands of the Xenomorphs, as being memorable even with limited screen time.  Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of interaction between anyone but the main players and the narrative suffers for it, especially when we arrive at the third act and the inevitable is depicted on screen.

     There was a lot that went wrong on the fateful day of June 30th, 2013.  The various agencies involved in fighting the Yarnell Hill fire did not appear to be on the same page, and it cost these men their lives. Kosinski handles the material with a deft touch, skillfully managing the moments where the fire surrounded the team, as well as the gut wrenching aftermath for the loved ones who suddenly lost their husbands, sons, brothers, and friends.  It’s difficult to watch, but it also shines a light on those who willingly put their lives on the line for their communities each day and never receive so much as a thank you.  GRADE: B