If you aren’t familiar with the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots but plan on seeing “Only the Brave”, do yourself a favor and don’t read up on their story before seeing the movie. It’s worth it just to experience the fullness of the emotional gut punch this film packs. I had not heard of these brave men who fought wildfires on the frontlines. I’m certain that’s why this movie provoked such a powerful response from me.
“Only the Brave” could have been several things under that familiar guise of “based on a true story”. It could have been some big studio action movie with more CGI than human element. It could have been a cliché-riddled buddy survival-thriller that Hollywood has produced by the dozens. To be honest I was expecting a bit of all that. What I got was a movie far more interested in its characters than I expected it to be. It isn’t perfect, but when focused on the right stuff (which is more often than not) it reveals a depth that will surprise a lot of people (including me).
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) heads a team of firefighters in Prescott, Arizona. They are a top-notch group who find themselves constantly brushed aside by higher ranked elites. Sick of the federal bureaucracy and lack of progress for his crew, Eric seeks the help of mentor and former firefighter Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). Because of Duane’s pull a portion of the film deals with the team earning their elite certification and becoming the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The reason this is even the slightest bit interesting is because of the characters. The writing team of Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer put the bulk of their focus on two of the firefighters, Brolin’s Eric and Brendan “Donut” McDonough played by a very convincing Miles Teller. Donut is a stoner looking to turn his life around following the birth of his daughter. Eric sees him as a kindred spirit of sorts hinting at some baggage looming from his past. Team-wise there is some strong supporting work James Badge Dale who plays Eric’s reliable second-in-command and Taylor Kitsch, a bit of a flake but a good-hearted one and always dependable in the field. The other firemen aren’t given much attention yet they still feel integral and important.
A lot of time is given to the team chemistry both in the field and away from it. There are plenty of good scenes that show the camaraderie of this tight-knit unit. At the same time the writers occasionally overdo it with some of their banter which I think is meant to be stereotypical “guy talk”. At times it gets a bit silly and perhaps even offensive (depending on your perspective).
But we really see these characters open up in the scenes where these men step away from their firefighting. Eric’s story is especially compelling because we get Jennifer Connelly who is excellent playing his wife Amanda. She spends more time with the horses she nurses back to health than her husband who is always away on duty. Over time we begin to sense the stress it has on their relationship. Connelly shrewdly maneuvers through Amanda’s slowly shifting emotions never hitting a false note. She’s so good in the scenes she is given and has a great chemistry with Brolin.
All of this relationship building and character development fuels the final act which, despite some predictable narrative setup, has a profound dramatic kick. Director Joseph Kosinski needs no manipulation or gimmickry because by this point his characters are in a good place and he has the emotional heft of the true events to carry his ending. And by the end I not only knew about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but I had an intense respect for them and their loved ones.