A better and more compelling movie than you might think, Only the Brave tells the story of the real-life Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specially trained team of Arizona firefighters who fought some of the ferocious recent wildfires, including the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013. Based on a GQ article by Sean Flynn and directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion, and the upcoming Top Gun sequel), the film’s first hour or so is more about the group getting certified to be something more than backup for other Hotshots teams.
Led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the group is put through the paces during training exercises and actual, in-the-field action that tests their knowledge of shifting winds and the behavior of flames under certain conditions. They are able to pull in a few new men—to get their number up to about 20—including former EMT and recovering drug addict Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who many of the other men don’t trust or believe belongs on the squad. We see the men at work and at play, together and with their families. The only spouse character who gets any real screen time is Marsh’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), whose primary use is to provide a distraction for Marsh by declaring that she now wants kids when once she did not.
Also on hand is Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), the team’s link to the local government, who convinces the town mayor that getting the Hotshots certified is a great move for the community. After that first hour of training, we have a fully certified team ready to take the lead on some very serious wildfires. I was particularly impressed by some of the many supporting players, including James Badge Dale and a surprisingly funny, unhinged performance by Taylor Kitsch, both as firefighters who also like to play pranks (between fires) on the rookie McDonough.
Director Kosinski does an impressive job staging and choreographing movement during the battles against fire. We always have a clear sense of the geography of the terrain and the behavior of the blaze, as well as the countermeasures of the Hotshots as they attempt to control the seemingly uncontrollable. All roads and storylines lead to the Yarnell Hill Fire, and if you don’t know what happened in an effort to spare an Arizona town, I won’t ruin it for you.
Only the Brave doesn’t attempt to make this job look easy or safe, nor does it play up these men as flawless heroes. It balances the authentic with the cinematic rather nicely, and while the first hour or so of the movie feels riddled with cliches, as a whole, the work strikes a nice balance. You could do worse this weekend.