‘Only the Brave’ salutes Prescott’s elite firefighting team
Directed by: Joe Kosinski
Written by: Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jeff Bridges, and Andie MacDowell
“Only the Brave” – “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.” - Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin)
Eric Marsh utters the aforementioned declaration during a moment of satisfaction of a job well done, but his chosen profession is also one of the most grueling and physically taxing that one can imagine. Eric is the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting force, and this particular group of men earned a notable distinction. The hardworking, Prescott, Ariz. crew became the first municipal hotshot team in the United States, and director Joe Kosinski’s “Only the Brave” honorably tells their true story on the big screen.
Like police officers who run towards the sound of gunshots to serve and protect, wildland firefighters charge towards dangers that appear in the form of raging infernos, those which burn helpless trees for thousands and thousands of acres. Beautiful, green trees that unfortunately become labeled as “fuel”. Teams like the Granite Mountain Hotshots leap to the front of these fires’ paths, quickly dig trenches and cut down vegetation to squelch these scorching demons, hell-bent on burning everything in sight.
At times, “Only the Brave” is an action picture, and Kosinski captures stunning moments of massive fires ripping through Arizona forests (which are seamless blends of actual New Mexican fires, flames created by the film crew and CGI), while these 20 brave men endure oppressive heat, rough terrain and long days and nights battling against their chosen enemy. Like many war films - such as “We Were Soldiers” (2002) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) – a more prominent facet of “Only the Brave” is the comradery that these men have for one another. The brotherhood that they share.
In an interview with the Phoenix Film Festival, Kosinski said, “That is the heart of this film. It’s about the brotherhood. It’s about what we are capable of, when we can rely on the guy standing next to you.”
With a runtime of 2 hours 13 minutes, Kosinski’s picture spends time in expressing these bonds through moments of humor, quiet conversations, demanding training, and hair-raising action in the field.
These 20 men have 20 unique, personal stories, and the film deepens its focus on a few select firefighters, including polar opposites (at least at first) Eric Marsh and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) who garner the most screen time. They are connected.
Brolin’s Marsh is a no-nonsense leader, a drill sergeant in a way and develops his men into tireless warriors to battle the forces of nature on the smoky front lines. Eric is the type of person who intellectually ponders a fire’s thought process and then quickly throws himself into the mix for 16-hour days and delivers firm orders to suffocate fires, while also caring about his men’s safety.
In his spare time, Eric rides horses with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), as this power couple also seem to double as a cowboy and cowgirl placed in a time capsule from 150 years ago and resurrected in present-day. Kosinski ensures that Eric and Amanda’s three-dimensional relationship is properly captured on-screen. Connelly is terrific in portraying a woman who is crazy in love with her husband, accepts his dangerous job but also desires his equal attention in their relationship. Many times, this becomes an impossible task for Eric. He deeply loves her, but – as the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – a majority of his time is spent on assignment, saving lives by containing and ending runaway forest fires. We also learn a surprise backstory which adds to their intrigue as both an empathetic and respected couple.
Eric runs a respected firefighting company in Prescott but wishes to certify his team as hotshots. They need to flawlessly execute their work to even sniff at a chance to call themselves hotshots, but in a twist of fate and with the worst sense of timing, Eric cuts a flawed young man a break by giving Brendan McDonough a chance to join his firefighting team. Teller is perfectly cast, as the actor portrays Brendan as a directionless local whose ever-present route of underachievement is his one certainty. With drug use and trouble with the law as predominant entries on his resume, a 180-degree life turn is the only foundation that could beget any inkling of success as a firefighter. Of course, that is not lost on the other men, like Chris (Taylor Kitsch) and Jesse (James Badge Dale), and especially when they desperately hope for their elusive certification. They also realize that Brendan is now their brother.
Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell round out an impressive, star-studded cast, and one might easily derive that many, many great actors and actresses hoped for a piece of screen time in this film. The Granite Mountain Hotshots are a hugely memorable firefighting team, not only for their groundbreaking accreditation, but for their mark in history during one particular fire. Many Arizonians know Granite Mountain’s story, but whether one is aware of it or not, it does not spoil the movie experience. A visual and truly emotional one that keeps us on the edge of our seats, offers a deeper understanding of a firefighter’s bond with his or her brothers and sisters on the front line and a sense of what makes this particular job…the greatest in the world.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.