You have to have a certain mindset to put yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of others. The bravery demonstrated by first responders doesn’t come naturally for many people, which is why those who are able and ready to do the job are held in such high esteem.
One such group is honored in the new film Only the Brave. It chronicles the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who fought wildfires in Arizona and across the country. Led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the group included a variety of personalities, from dedicated family man and second-in-command Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) to the perpetually single and life-of-the-party Christopher Mackenzie (Taylor Kitsch).
As the group transitioned from a lower level crew — one not allowed to go to the frontline of a fire — to certified hotshots, they took on additional members like Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a recovering drug addict looking to provide for his new daughter. Along the way, they were championed by wildland division chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges).
Director Joseph Kosinski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer have a lot to cover in the story, which takes place over many years. They must not only establish the evolving skills of the firefighters, but also set up the dynamics within the group, the home lives of some crew members, and the changing emotions that come with such an important and dangerous job.
The filmmakers do a mostly solid job at covering all their bases, although with so many characters, some inevitably get short shrift. Surprisingly, they spend a lot of time delving into Marsh’s relationship with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), an unusual and welcome approach for a film that could’ve focused solely on the macho nature of the work.
The wildfire scenes are the basis for the film, and they don’t disappoint. A combination of CGI work and actual fire makes for highly effective blaze sequences that show just how impossible they were to fight. The filmmakers don’t try to make anyone a superhero; they’re grunt workers through-and-through, and the results they get come from preparation, strength, and stamina.
Given that the movie is based on real-life events from 2013, it’s no secret the story ends in heartbreak. But even if you know the specifics, the moment still hits you like a punch in the stomach. Kosinski and his team treat it respectfully, showing how the tragedy occurred without being exploitative.
Though the film likely would have been as effective with a cast of unknown actors, the sheer number of stars and their combined acting experience elevates it to another level. Each of the main actors stands out in his or her own way, but the film is a true collaborative effort, emulating the ethos of the firefighters.
Films like Only the Brave are made with the best of intentions, to honor people who give their all for others. The film does just that, and earns its gut-wrenching emotions along the way.