FILM REVIEW: ONLY THE BRAVE’s Soul-Burning Heroes Light Up Screen
Tales of heroic feats tend to have as their centerpiece gritty souls, burning with the desire to make it a better world, or at the very least to help in the time of need. That is the somewhat archetypical story carefully crafted in the upcoming real-life drama Only The Brave, which tells of the incredibly and tragic tale of the Yarnell Hill Fire that ravaged Arizona in 2013 and destroyed many life and property in its wake.
The movie is disturbingly apropos, what with the deadly blazes currently scorching through Northern California leaving a devastating trail of cinder and ash in its path. And while there has been a movie about firefighters before (Ladder 49), this is the first in recent memory that follows a specialized “hotshot” unit, an elite group within a fire department that is specifically trained to fight wildfires.
But the Granite Mountain Hotshots of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department were not always “hotshots.” They begin in the film as a lesser “handcrew” that clears the way and prepares the path for the better trained members and, though led by the ambitious and service-oriented Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), they must seemingly wait their turn in line.
It is all relative, however, as while the hand crew has to cede the space to the more powerful “boys” that crash their fire extinguishing party at the beginning of the film, they are at least doing better than pothead, washed up loser Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Marsh’s team are in the best of shapes—and they toss balls around the courtyard as if posing for an NYFD year-end shirtless calendar—and make doing 100 pushups while running up and down marshes seem like a stroll in the park. McDonough, meanwhile, lives in his mother’s basement, cannot keep a girlfriend, and lands himself in the slammer after committing larceny to buy drugs.
The setup is as stereotypical as it sounds, particularly so when you notice how much the words “boys,” “bro,” and “hook up,” among others, are thrown around. There are two kinds of mostly immature males here—the alpha ones, the ones who consider themselves men and grunt and swivel axes (Taylor Kitsch and Scott Haze add themselves to that list), and the failure-to-launch boy that McDonough represents.
Then there are the leaders, Brolin but also Jeff Bridges as a local leader with influence enough to get the hand crew “promoted” into hotshot recognition. Bridges is defaulting to Rooster Cogburn again, to his character in Hell or High Water, the smart-talking, wisecracking figure with the buckled belt and the cowboy hat. In all, the exercise is carefully crafted as the usual hero-against-adversity movie. It could be The Finest Hours, it could be The Perfect Storm. And it is, except Only the Brave has ashes instead of drops, waves of flames instead of of water. There is even an opening dream sequence with a bear roaring out of a fire, not to mention pouty women who do not always support the men in their dangerous endeavors—Jennifer Connelly and Andie MacDowell do the honors as the doting wives. Yeah.
The redeeming qualities of Only the Brave do eventually arrive, if you can survive the fireless setup. When the horrific blaze that is the purpose of this film arrives, director Joseph Kozinski (currently working on the Top Gun sequel) spares no expense and resorts to all tricks to make it gripping, terrifying, and extremely believable. The previous scenes—which include training montages that cleverly but obviously set up incoming dangers and also moments of mockery against the halfwit Brendan as he is nicknamed “the Donut” but that portend his big redemption moment—may still yet be turned to cinders in your memory.
The deeds of the men portrayed in Only The Brave are heartbreaking and almost impossible to believe. The fiery hell they went through, well, I will not spoil the ultimate fate of each contender, but suffice it to say that a movie is the least of the recognition they deserve. The film functions the most in these climatic action sequences, these moments of protracted danger that emulate the best of Peter Berg’s work, for example, as in Deepwater Horizon. It is real-life heroism turned into cinematic bliss, and it keeps you gripped and gripping. It functions the least the rest of the time, stepping into pitfall after pitfall of wooden characters plucked from all the other movies in this universe.
Only the Brave is a fine film, eventually offering a fitting tribute to the brave men it champions. It is only too bad that it does not do a tad more to honor their feats with slightly less tepid tropes in its first half, instead of giving something at least slightly incendiary.
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