The heat is on.
Every so often, a film comes along that tells the story of real-life “heroes”. Only last year, Tom Hanks was portraying the man who infamously landed a plane on the Hudson river after an engine malfunction, Chesley Sullenberger. But not all heroes are lucky enough to have their story be told on the big screen. Even if they are are, not every story is told to the best of its potential—films like Spotlight and Patriot’s Day, for example, were met with some outrage by the families affected, criticized for inaccurate portrayals and missing details.
Fortunately, the makers of Only the Brave have handled the infamous Yarnell Hill Fire incident with a great deal of care and sensitivity. The team collaborated with news reporters and the firefighting Granite Mountain Hotshots to create the most accurate depiction of their story. In the end, the finished product is a stunning success; a show of bravery and emotion the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Only the Brave is more than just a film retelling the tragic tale of these heroes; Only the Brave is a spellbinding experience from beginning to end.
The story focuses on the life of Eric Marsh, supervisor to a team of wildland firefighters in Arizona. Played by Josh Brolin, Eric is struggling with not only his home life and marriage, but also his waning reputation amongst other wildfire patrol groups in the area. With the help of his friend Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), Eric – or “Supe”, as he’s called by his friends and coworkers – asks the mayor for Hotshot certification, which will allow him and his men to be on the front-lines of wildfire patrol. After some grueling training and the recruitment of a few new men, including Miles Teller’s down-on-his-luck character Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the team is granted certification and takes up the mantle of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Unfortunately, Marsh’s marriage continues to stay on the rocks, and his new promotion ultimately leads to the demise of nearly his entire crew.
These real-life events are outlined here in a unique way—every fire is introduced with text displayed onscreen, with its location relative to the main characters’ hometown (i.e. 20 miles north of Prescott, Arizona). The story is then sprinkled between each eventful fire to fill viewers in on behind-the-scenes life at home. While every firefighting scene was a spectacle to behold, full of intense heat, and even tenser, life-threatening situations, the off-the-job scenes were arguably more captivating. The emotion delivered by the actors was simply incredible, and everything occurring onscreen felt true-to-life—some genuine Oscar-worthy performances. Every cast member gave their all to portray these peoples’ lives as accurately as possible. Their roles were handled with utmost respect, and it shows in every single scene.
These were some genuinely moving, Oscar-worthy performances.
I was drawn into this film by Miles Teller, having been a huge fan of Whiplash, and he certainly did not disappoint. Former drug abuser and careless waste of space, Brendan “Donut” McDonough, decides to turn his life around when his ex-lover reveals she’s pregnant with his child. He’s spurred on to take his firefighting skills to the Granite Mountain Hotshots—an elite squad trained for out-of-control wildfires—in hopes of a new source of income to support his child. Eric takes a chance on Brendan, who, after a rigorous boot camp to make the team, went on to become the only survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire. Much like in Whiplash, Teller provides a sense of strain and hopelessness to his performance, which makes his portrayal of this underdog a lot more likable. He’s very talented when it comes to playing clueless, with performances reminiscent of early Jesse Eisenberg. Teller, however, manages to fill out these characters with an underlying sense of purpose—they don’t want to be pushed around and typically, they wind up utilizing their drive to achieve great things. He’s masterful at that kind of deception, and “Donut” is no different (in a good way).
While in the beginning “Donut” is obviously a deadbeat, he starts to come into his own when finally being allowed to see his daughter again. Being part of her life, and buoyed by his team’s hard-earned respect for him, Donut begins to exude confidence. Miles Teller’s emotions also begin to come out in the second half, as Brendan’s work starts to affect his family life. While “Donut” is not actually the film’s main protagonist, his story is nonetheless always discernible in the background, right up until the ultimate climax. Whenever “Donut” was onscreen, there was either a laugh to be had (thanks to Taylor Kitsch’s MacKenzie ripping on him) or a powerful emotional moment (scenes like Brendan’s reluctant resignation or the moment when he found out his brothers had perished, come vividly to mind). Teller’s acting chops were well and truly put to the test, his performance ultimately being both uplifting and heartbreaking. It’s this emotional see-sawing that makes his story even more gut-wrenchingly relatable.
The true main character of Only the Brave was Brolin’s fierce yet disturbed captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Eric “Supe” Marsh. It’s in this role that Josh Brolin, typically a character actor and face of upcoming roles like Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Cable in Deadpool 2, and even Hellboy, here gets to be just a bare-bones, run-of-the-mill citizen doing his job. It was nice to see him step into the shoes of a regular guy, just fighting fires (while fighting for his marriage). It’s a brilliant performance, with Brolin delivering an uncanny resemblance to his real-life counterpart (helped further thanks to a particularly excellent makeup job). There’s a deep feeling of unity amongst the Granite Mountain Hotshots, all thanks to Eric Marsh and his fearless leadership. Every fire is handled with great care and planned with surgical precision by “Supe”. These tactics are even passed on to his men, as proven by their ability to save a giant juniper tree without his supervision, utilizing their own original plan. Brolin provides a genuine amount of sincerity to the role that makes “Supe” feel like a flesh and blood man who cares about the people around him. However, it’s quite obvious he is also deeply affected by his own anxieties. He struggles to keep his marriage alive, he struggles to help his men improve as firefighters. He cares about his job, his family, and his firefighting brothers, but his emotions frequently take him to his breaking point. There’s no question; Brolin is a riveting screen presence as this strong, yet profoundly broken man.
Only the Brave‘s standout performance comes out of nowhere, however. As Eric’s wife, Amanda, Jennifer Connolly delivers every single emotional beat in the most honest, realistic sense. Connelly portrays here an extremely hardworking woman with an exuberant amount of love for her husband. The chemistry between Connelly and Brolin is palpable, and I was glued to the screen whenever they shared a moment of intense satisfaction, or crushing despair, the latter of which transpired quite often. Unfortunately, Amanda Marsh doesn’t always feel like the love is reciprocated—what with Eric’s tendency to be out of the house all day and all night, as well as his distaste in starting a family with her. Their constant bickering and late nights drive her, literally, into a car accident which leaves her physically bruised and emotionally scarred. Amanda continues to live out her days with a consistent fear of losing her husband, until she finally gets the call that he has perished in the fateful Yarnell Hill Fire. At this moment, she breaks down until she is nothing but a withered soul of a woman—and it is here that Jennifer Connelly shines. I honestly can’t recall the last time I was this blown away by an actress’ performance.
One of my fondest childhood memories is watching Jennifer Connelly in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, but in Only the Brave, my perspective of her talent changed completely. Her Amanda Marsh is stretched paper-thin, her mind torn between what she wants and what she has. When her husband is killed, the cord snaps and her mind spirals out of control. The scene in which she breaks down will be forever cemented in my mind as one of the greatest showings of absolute emotion in film. There is no doubt in my mind that Connelly deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. I was stunned to my very core when I found out “Supe” was gone, and Connelly reflected every feeling inside me through Amanda.
One of the greatest showings of absolute emotion in film.
The story of Only the Brave was a captivating one, full of hardship, humor, and heartbreak. I went into this film knowing not a single thing about the Granite Mountain Hotshots—I honestly thought the only truths in the movie were about the fires themselves. Writing this review, I was even inclined to put a spoiler warning in case you’d never heard of this brave tale. I compared it to Hamilton, the Broadway musical, where I was expected to know the outcome of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I didn’t, and the show felt like an original story to me. So alas, my girlfriend and I were probably the only ones in the audience who did not know how this film would end, with nearly every character we’d grown to love perishing in an unstoppable blaze upon a hill in Yarnell, Arizona. But it’s that unknown aspect that kept us on the edge of our seats the whole time. We were enthralled; physically and mentally engaged in the action before us.
Director Joseph Kosinski did an amazing job of creating a realistic wildfire scenario for the film’s heroes to battle. Just as impressive was the feeling of camaraderie instilled in the team as they worked together to put the fires out. The film’s direction was on point, in terms of both action and drama, with only some scenes being a bit dull for the movie’s pace. Sadly, any time Jeff Bridges’s character Duane was onscreen, there was a noticeable slowdown in the plot’s advancement. He really only existed to give “Supe” some advice, which even then always turned into Marsh talking to himself and finding an answer through self-reflection. It’s apparent he was meant to be a father figure for Marsh, but his presence was a bit dysfunctional. Though I must admit: Jeff Bridges’s sob when he found out Marsh was dead? Devastating. But even details like Marsh’s recurring vision of a bear on fire made me read into situations too much, as if the movie was trying to be deeper than it needed to be. Moments like this took me out of the story and had me wishing for more action to cover up this unnecessary story bit.
Aside from some minor moments of derailment and boredom, Only the Brave is a visual spectacle in the midst of a pretty forgettable movie season. The story of 19 brave firefighters who lost their lives protecting their fellow citizens, this film delivers on every aspect one could want in a true story. Better yet, it’s the perfect film for any age group. It was a spur-of-the-moment date night flick for me, and both my girlfriend and I came out enraptured by what we had just witnessed. The past 2 hours and 13 minutes took us on a journey to Arizona to really become part of the Granite Mountain team. Expertly crafted scenery burst into flames and we could feel the heat around us, while the men fought to save our lives, as well as the people of Prescott. In the end, they all gave their lives for the safety of others, yet the Granite Mountain Hotshots live on in our hearts as heroes. Not that the world needed a movie to tell their story, but fortunately a beautifully-executed film like Only the Brave came along to grace my eyes, and my emotions, with their epic tale.