Arriving in theaters mere weeks after devastating forest fires that ravaged 6,000 acres of land in Anaheim and just as wind fires shut down Highway 33, “Only the Brave,” which is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain hotshots — who tragically lost their lives in the wake of the infamous 2013 Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona — feels like it’s precisely the movie we need right now.
And boy, does it deliver — from just about every standpoint.
With its brash spirit, genuine heart and no-nonsense approach, “Only the Brave” thrives by not only capitalizing on the unique opportunity to make a villain out of “the perfect fire,” but also in crafting the relationships between the hotshots (i.e., firefighters who specialize in wildfire suppression tactics) of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department, who so courageously went toe-to-toe with that fire.
Just as was the case with the real-life Granite Mountain hotshots, the heart of the film is propelled by Eric “Supe” Marsh (an electric Josh Brolin), the hotshots’ hard-nosed yet fatherly supervisor whose past battles with addiction appear to remain firmly in his past, thanks in large part to the support of his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly, giving us her best stuff since “A Beautiful Mind”), who loves, challenges and worries about her husband in equal measure.
Backed by Prescott Wildland Division Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), Marsh succeeds in his goal of getting his guys certified to transition from being a “type two handcrew” to a hotshot crew. No one in the crew is lacking for machismo, but each displays integrity and a soft spot for their families, even unlikely hire Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), who becomes intent on maturing out of his checkered, addiction-addled past upon the birth of his baby daughter.
Under Marsh’s resolute leadership, the hotshots crew formed into an elite team that managed to cut off a number of potential wildfires in the Prescott area at the pass and became revered in its community. But nothing could prepare them for what was to take place on Yarnell Hill in June of 2013.
Having only directed lukewarm blockbusters such as “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion” in the past, director Joseph Kosinski has now arrived with “Only the Brave.” Every scene in the script, which was co-written by Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) and Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”), is perfectly tempered by Kosinksi’s fine touch, and seems to ooze with his confidence. The visuals are stunning and never overbearing, the drama understated and never obvious, the characters fully realized and never sanctified.
“Only the Brave” also sees Kosinski as the benefactor of a stacked cast leaving it all out there. In addition to appearing like he hasn’t stopped doing push-ups for the last year, Brolin brings tremendous three-dimensionality to the role of Marsh, whose poise in leading his crew starkly contrasts his self-doubt in his personal life. Brolin’s scenes with Connelly consistently command your attention.
The same goes for Teller’s scenes in which his character attempts to atone for his past mistakes with his baby daughter’s mother Natalie (Natalie Hall) and his own mother (Rachel Singer). In addition, his relationship with fellow crew member Christopher (Taylor Kitsch) evolves as well, from contentious to brotherly.
The movie’s effectiveness in developing these narrative elements raises the stakes in truly satisfying fashion. Each of these Granite Mountain hotshots had something to live for — and the way the film builds upon that makes its third act, despite the fact that we preemptively know the fate of these men, somehow surprising, and ultimately devastating.
Aside from the obvious exception that the villain here isn’t an enemy army, but rather Mother Nature, “Only the Brave” in many ways resembles the great war movies that have been released in recent years. It boasts not only the visual and narrative flair of a “Hacksaw Ridge” or an “American Sniper,” but also their brisk pacing — “Only the Brave” clocks in at 113 minutes, but so actively sustains tension throughout that you never find yourself looking down to check the time.
I think “Only the Brave” (which is rated PG-13) could be a sleeper pick this year for Best Picture at the Oscars, and can state without any doubt that it’s the tribute film that the real-life Granite Mountain hotshots deserve.