In 2013, America suffered through the Yarnell Hill Fires in Yarnell, Arizona. It was the nation's deadliest wildfire since 1991 - an incident that required the selfless bravery of hundreds of firefighter teams from across the country. In the poignant biopic Only the Brave, we learn more about the duty and sacrifice that led some of those men to acts of great heroism, when their friends and neighbors needed them the most.
The film centers around Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the roughneck super of the Prescott Fire Department in Prescott, Arizona. After years of handpicking and training an elite crew of wildland firefighters, Eric sees the chance for Prescott to become the first municipal crew of fully certified "Hotshots" in the country, after so many delays and disappoints. Despite having a collection hot-heads, misfits, and even a former junkie, Marsh manages to earn the team a chance for certification, and finally enter the big leagues. However, the goal is a somewhat specious one, as earning Hotshot status only opens his team to even more dangerous (and potentially fatal) battles against "the b*tch" that is fire.
For anyone who followed the story of the Yarnell Hill Fires, and the brave actions of Eric Marsh's Granite Mountain Hotshots, you already know that Only the Brave is treading on some very poignant and emotional ground. Director Joesph Kosinski understands this better than anyone, which is why he takes the time and care to meditate on the lives and characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots - even at the expense of cinematic momentum and intrigue.
On the directorial front, Kosinski trades his signature fantastical sci-fi visuals from TRON: Legacy and Oblivion for the pastoral splendor of the American southwest, which he captures in often stunning glory in the wildlands action sequences in Only The Brave. The scenes of outdoor firefighting are also stunning and exciting, often creating nail-biting suspense that is especially impressive for a biopic whose events and resolution are pretty well-known. In contrast to the portrait-worthy aesthetic of the outdoors, Kosinski also crafts great fly-on-the-wall scenes between the principal players, endearing them with true life and liveliness and genuinely making viewers feel intimated with the Hotshots as more than just characters; we actually get insight and feel of them as people.
This wonderful characterization is aided by a great ensemble cast, who all bring charisma and/or depth to their respective characters. Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly create the warm beating heart of the film as Eric Marsh and his wife Amanda, crafting a slow-burn character arc that will surprise and touch many viewers. Miles Teller (Whiplash) is equally good at playing Brendan McDonough, the former junkie who does a major heel-turn to become one of the most dedicated members of the Granite Mountain crew. Character actors like James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3), Taylor Kitsch (Battleship), and Geoff Stults (The Finder) bring some much-needed levity as featured members of the fire crew, whose banter and camaraderie are infectiously charismatic, making the audience not just care for these characters, but actually like them.
Selling those performances is a crucial ingredient to the film, as the script by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) gets tripped up by the usual biopic pitfalls - namely how and where to focus attention. A single life can be hard to capture on film in all its complexity, let alone an entire ensemble; Only the Brave takes its sweet time to build up the characters and relationships of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but that investment of time starts to drag in the middle, as the actual point and destination of the narrative fades out of focus. The climax isn't all that exciting, as the filmmakers instead rely on the long buildup to convey the major impact of the finale. It's a somewhat safe bet, as Only the Brave won't leave very many dry eyes in the theater, but narratively speaking, the film is slightly imbalanced.
In the end, Only the Brave is the type of film that will transcend the usual cinematic criticisms and connect with viewers on a gut-wrenching and visceral emotional level. Like the title suggests, this tale of American heroes and sacrifice isn't for the feint of heart, but definitely worth acknowledging. Check it out.
Only the Brave is in theaters everywhere starting on October 20th. It is 2 hours and 13 minutes long, and is rated Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material.