Only the Brave (2017) Review
COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Heroes come in all shapes and size” as the age old saying goes. This saying even extends to the cinematic world of movies, portraying various types of heroes through narrative film tales. In today’s current realm of movies, heroism is mostly presented underneath a fantastical lens through the rise of the comic book feature films, depicting larger-than-life scale boldness of superheroes, gods, and cosmic beings to achieve a massive sense of moviemaking escapism. That being said, Hollywood still continues to produce films that depict “real-life heroism” (albeit under cinematic representation). These films, including ones like 13 hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, and Sully, usually offer up real-life bravery in the face adversary, difficult struggles, and courage to overcome impossible odds. Now, Sony Pictures (and Columbia Pictures) and director Joseph Kosinski gears up and heads into the brushfire foray with the movie Only the Brave; inspired by the true-life story events of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. Does this newest iteration of real-life heroism shine brightly on the big-screen or does it fail to put out its own flame within its “paint-by-numbers” endeavor?
In the late 2000s, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is a seasoned veteran member of the Prescott, Arizona fire department, seeking to turn his team into being one of the “hotshot” teams: an elite status awarded to firefighters who specialize in on the ground wildfire suppression tactics. However, due to the fact that his team, which consists of team members like Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) and Chris Mackenzie (Taylor Kitsch), is part of a municipal department (and not a federal unit), Marsh’s odds of his crew reaching the “hotshot” status are stacked against him. Coinciding with that frustration, this adds stress to Marsh’s personal; life, affecting his relationship with his wife Amanda Marsh (Jennifer Connelly); working long hours and straining their romance to a boiling point. Before his crew undergoes their hotshot evaluation exam, Marsh add some fresh new recruits to his team’s ranks. Among the newest additions is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a young screw-up who is looking to leave his drug-filled life of bad choices behind him (and who’s unexpectedly become of father of late). Under Marsh’s watchful eye, Brendan and his more experienced peers overcome the initial friction between them and form a close-knit bond as an impressive team of firefighters known as the “Granite Mountain Hotshots”, facing some of the most destructive wildfires that the U.S. has ever seen.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While do I appreciate a lot of fictional feature films (something a bit more fantastical than the norm like fantasy or sci-fi), I do like non-fictional movies that are grounded in real-life and portray courageous valor and brave heroism. While these movies are usually presented in a way that makes them more “cinematic” than what actually happened (i.e. taking poetic / dramatic license to spice up the movie from its real-life source material), they (the director, actors, writers, and everyone on these film projects) will still convey the raw emotional power of the story being told. Additionally, reiterating what I said above, these movies also displays the untold story behind true events, with a narrative that speaks of individuals (or a group of people) that faces impossible odds, a trying event, or an adversity of an extraordinary situation. Whatever the case is, movies like Lone Survivor, Patriots Day, and Sully display this beautiful and are some of personal favorites to watch; bridging real life events with Hollywood moviemaking.
Only the Brave, the newest film to take up this mantle, is another prime example, showcasing the hard-working firefighters who battles against the sudden and unexpected fires that spark in the forest wilderness. I don’t remember hearing about this move (online anyway), but I do remember seeing the trailers for it when I went to my local theater and was kind of intrigued by it. From the trailer alone, it kind of reminded me of 2016’s Deepwater Horizon (showcasing the trails and hardships of the “blue collar” working class). Of course, its story was somewhat interesting and caught my attention, but it was also the cast (i.e Brolin, Teller, Dale, Connelly, etc.) that got me really wanting to see the movie when it got released in theaters. So, what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. While the does have some flaws that it can’t outrun, Only the Brave is a straightforward and meaningful feature, telling of courageous men of the “Granite Mountain Hotshots”, thanks to the film’s direction, strong performances, and its palpable true-life story of which it’s based on.
Based on the true story, which was first documented in Sean Flynn’s 2013 GQ article titled “No Exit”, Only the Brave is directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose previous works includes directing films like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. So, as you can tell, with his previous movies in the realm of science fiction, Kosinski makes Only the Brave his first foray into a more grounded reality and (to be honest) is his best directed movie (so far) in his career. Kosinski is respectful to the film’s source material, honoring the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but also showing them as regular people who have families and personal problems to overcome as well as the intense struggle that they must endure during when “on the job”. Kosinski also does a good job in switching between the film’s louder and quieter moments, finding comfort in the less-intense moments that are devoted for character building sequences. In contrast, Kosinski makes the feature shine when focusing on the Granite Mountain Hotshots during their difficult training or their decisive battle against the blazing fires. Basically, the more visceral and action-drama elements are strong and played to Kosinski’s strength in directing and craftsmanship. Adding to that knowledge, the feature is also well presented (in terms of filmmaking aesthetic), with cinematographer Greg Gardiner showing the beautiful and quiet landscape of Prescott, Arizona as well as the hellish scenes of when the Hotshots go into the “belly of the beast” when encountering forest fires. Also, the movie’s score, which is composed by David Newman, is great, especially when the movie enters it last twenty or so minutes.
The movie also resonates strongly because of its source material. Every year, thousands of wildfires break out across the nation (or rather the world), destroying hundreds (if not thousands) of forest woodlands. This also extends to the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the swarming blazing inferno, which could result of destruction of property or loss of life. This, of course, echoes to the recent events of the California fires and the destructive nature that these unruly outbreaks can be, displacing individuals from the life they once knew. So, if you know the true story of the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, you know where the motion picture will lead to, providing a very emotional ending that everyone involved in Only the Brave (director, the writers, the cast, etc.) nail it beautifully and that will resonate with its viewers.
The film’s screenplay, which was penned by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, also plays an important of the positives of the film. Nolan and Singer (and by proximity Kosinski) never turn the film into a disaster movie (i.e focusing more on the disaster aspect than human characterization of its characters), with a lot emphasis on several key members of the “Granite Mountain Hotshots” as well as their crew overall’s camaraderie with each other (as well as their families). It definitely helps add to caring about the film’s characters, which helps blend real life and moviemaking as well as working within the context of narrative being told. Additionally, the movie also explores the themes relationships and fatherhood, which is mostly identified with Marsh and McDonough in the movie. In the end, the film’s screenplay never loses focus on the feature’s objective, which is to tell the courage and bravery of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team (whether on the job or in their private moments).
Only the Brave does falter slightly in a few areas and, while it doesn’t cripple or hamper the movie severally, it does keep out of reach of true cinematic greatness of similar movies out there. Perhaps the most problematic (and I’ll mention this later with some of the characters in one of the paragraphs below) is that the movie, despite playing up its characters, is a presented very broadly or rather in “broad strokes”. What that means is that the film doesn’t go into a very specific details and / or complexity in both story and characters. This also extends to a few issues, including addiction / addictive behavior and the effects it has family, friends, and love ones. This causes Only the Brave to be presented as a straightforward and slightly formulaic feature film. Additionally, the film’s runtime, which clocks in around two hours and thirteen minutes, is a bit long with a few pacing problems. Overall, in the grand scheme of the film, these problems are a bit minor negative (at least to me that is).
Perhaps one of the most reasons why I wanted to see this movie was for the cast, with Only the Brave’s major players (main leads and several supporting ones) being recognizable from their respective past film projects. Leading the charge in this movie is actually two characters Eric “Supe” Marsh and Brendon “Donut” McDonough, who are played by actors Josh Brolin and Miles Teller. Brolin, known for his roles in Sicario, True Grit (2010), and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, fits perfectly as the gruff and seasoned persona of Eric Marsh, easily sliding into the role and given him a sense of meaningful complexity, especial when it comes to his team and to his personal life. Likewise, Teller, known for his roles in the Divergent movies, Whiplash, and Thank You for Your Service, does well as the young screw-up individual Brendon McDonough, with a completely story arc for us (the viewers) to follow throughout the movie’s journey (from drug addict to one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots), As pairing of characters, both Brolin and Teller are great together, especially when both are on-screen together, creating an interesting pseudo-father / son dynamic that definitely works with the film and provides a compelling bond between Marsh and McDonough. Additionally, actor Taylor Kitsch (Lone Survivor and Battleship) plays a large supporting role in the movie as Chris “Mac” Mackenzie, one of the Hotshot members, who forms a genuine “bromance” with Brendon over the course of the movie’s runtime, while actor James Badge Dale (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and HBO’s The Pacific) as Jesse Steed, March’s solid right-hand man / second in-command Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The rest of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team members, including ones like Geoff Stults (She’s Out of My League and Unforgettable) as Travis Turbyfill, Alex Russell (Chronicle and Goldstone) as Andrew Ashcraft, Thad Luckinbill (The Young and the Restless and Undressed), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse and EastEnders) as Wade Parker, Scott Haze (Child of God and Midnight Special) as Clayton Whitted, and the rest, round out the cast, with these individuals being portrayed well-enough, but are most broadly-sketched to fit into the “tried-and-true” macho firefighters archetypes category. There’s nothing wrong with them being portrayed “broadly” and filling in certain scenes (as well in the background) as I kind of expected this, especially with a twenty-man crew to fill in movie that only runs for two hours and thirteen minutes. Something had to give and get shortchanged. However, all of them are good in their respective roles (and that’s all that matters).
As for the rest of the non-Granite Mountain Hotshot cast of characters, the one that standouts out the most has to be Eric Marsh’s wife, Amanda, who is played by actress Jennifer Connelly. Known for her roles in Requiem for a Dream, Blood Diamond, and A Beautiful Mind, Connelly plays the part, making Amanda more complex that just the “frustrated” wife to the leading male protagonist. It also helps that both her and Brolin make for a believable on-screen husband and wife, with both showcasing the right amount of tender moments and anger tension towards each other in some of their more private emotional scenes. The rest of the cast, which includes Jeff Bridges (True Grit and The Big Lebowski) as Duane Steinbrink and Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day and Sex, Lies, and Videotapes) as Duane’s wife Marvel Steinbrink, play the parts well, filling out the rest of the cast of characters in smaller supporting roles that have limited screen time.
Eric Marsh, Brendon McDonough, and the rest of the Granite Mountain Hotshots face the blazing fires of wilderness and their own personal battles in the movie Only the Brave. Director Joseph Kosinski newest film showcases the real-life valor of the brave men who battle against the wild and uncontrollable wilderness fires. While the movie paints itself in broad strokes and doesn’t really break the mold for movies that are inspired by the “real life” acts of courage and bravery, the film is a wholesome and worthwhile drama feature, thanks to the solid acting, great direction, fine craftsmanship, and the emotional story behind the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Personally, I loved this movie. The cast was great in the movie and it was rock-solid and moving feature to watch that will surely resonate with all who watch it. So, I would definitely give Only the Brave my highly recommended stamp of approval as it’s something everyone should see, glancing into the small window (albeit through a cinematic lens) of the heroism / dangerous life that these individuals live within through success and tragedies. To the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots (and to those who putting their lives on the line to protect everyone else) …I salute you and I thank you for all that you did, done, and will continue to do.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: October 20th, 2017
Reviewed On: October 25th, 2017
Only the Brave is 133 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material