Before delving into Only The Brave, the latest effort from Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy), we should make a distinction and split potential viewers in two categories.
You may be a cinemagoer who never heard of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but can dig a solid action drama about Arizona firefighters (if this is the case, be warned that the 12A certificate must be taken seriously). What you should know beforehand is that Only The Brave will impress you not only because of its talented cast, including: Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale and many others, but it will also will leave a mark cause of the gripping, ineluctable emotional complications that subvert a human life constantly put on the line to save others. Only The Brave is not the easy-going action blockbuster you take kids and nephews to watch, knowing they’ll come out wanting to become firefighters. It’s intense, blunt, forthright, and true to the point of becoming educational. That said, save the reading for later and just go see it.
On the other hand, you might know who the Granite Mountain Hotshots were and be fully aware of the 2013 Yarnell Hill wildfire, which caused the highest loss of life among firefighters in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. Yes, Only The Brave is the true story of the 20 firemen from Prescott, Arizona, and their subsequent demise, but it has so many things to say that calling it a simple “tribute” would mean cheapening its message. The story begins focusing on Eric Marsh (Brolin), Prescott’s firefighter superintendent; a man who already fought many battles, but has to keep the “trainee” sign on his truck because his team lacks state certification as only so-called “hotshots” are on the front line when fighting wildfires. Marsh’s boys have important challenges ahead of them if they want to step up from just being a support “hand crew”.
These challenges are not limited to blazes or state bureaucracy; the toughest struggles are against their personal issues and flaws. Brendan (Teller) joins the team when his mom kicks him out after his latest drug-fuelled scuffle with the police. He’s immediately ostracised by the team, especially by Jesse (Badge Dale), who makes it clear that there will be serious consequences if Brendan’s unreliability costs them the long-awaited certification. Marsh, too, is putting his whole life into the job; the effects on his marriage with Amanda (Connelly) are starting to surface.
What could be seen as a facile attempt at watering down the action with ordinary, stereotyped gimmicks soon develops into the film’s real dramatic core: a considerable (and welcome) display of expertise by screenwriters Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down). Brendan’s arc has a fascinating pattern that might look traditional at first, but develops exponentially, interlacing with other characters who grow with him. His redemption is no bed of roses, either; quite unconventionally for a film one would expect eager to put its heroes on a pedestal, Only The Brave breaks its characters down harshly, albeit in a relatable, heart-to-heart manner. Their flaws are human flaws, which is what makes their self-sacrifice truly heroic.
There is also plenty of space for some breath-taking sequences, flawlessly rendered (also thanks to the astonishing locations); many will teach you a thing or two about firefighting operations, while forcing you to face the implacable power of fire, one of nature’s most destructive forces. Perhaps more time should have been dedicated to showing the full scale of wildfire dangers: a mere few seconds of a city chaotically trying to evacuate doesn’t really do justice to it and muddles the actual impact and context of the firefighters’ efforts. Nevertheless, Kosinski gives plenty of purpose to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, showing how fulfilling yet damning being part of the group was: an honour that gave them everything and then took it all away.
Only The Brave is set for release 10th November 2017.
Words by Davide Prevarin