Movie review: The plotline grows hazy in Only the Brave

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Only The Brave tells the personal story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, who battled a deadly wildfire in 2013. Columbia Pictures Only The Brave tells the personal story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, who battled a deadly wildfire in 2013. Columbia Pictures

In 2013, one of the deadliest wildfires in recent history claimed 25 lives, 19 of whom were members of an elite squad of firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. All but one lost their lives while struggling to contain the blaze, which appeared routine until wind and other factors allowed it to spread beyond all expectation. Hotshots refers to a type of specialized fire control and suppression unit; rather than putting out the fire directly, they make clearings, dig ditches and start guiding fires, all to direct the fire away from populated areas and further kindling. It’s an unforgiving job that requires incredible fitness, complete situational awareness and pure bravery.

Only the Brave
PG-13, 134 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Only the Brave tells the story of Granite Mountain’s municipal firefighting unit, its journey to becoming fully certified Hotshots and the members’ dynamic as a team and as individuals. The two men at the center of the story are Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller) and Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin). Marsh is a veteran of wildfire control, with ambitions to lead his crew to the status he feels they deserve. His entire life is dedicated to this idea, which can cause friction between him and his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). Marsh’s drive is more pride in his team than ego, but his singular focus on becoming the leader of a Hotshot crew leads to a lack of desire to grow and change as a person. Brolin portrays Marsh as a gruff and heroic father figure with no biological children of his own, who knows he is capable of a greater task yet is forever bound by humility. His mannerisms can be repetitive, yet, as we discover, his personality and lifestyle were carefully constructed for very specific reasons to overcome obstacles in his earlier life.

McDonough, meanwhile, has just been kicked out of his mother’s home after she’s endured his addiction and arrests for too long. The mother of his newborn daughter wants nothing to do with him, nor does he have anything to offer. His rehab is joining Marsh’s team, reconditioning his body and mind to their potential and becoming part of something bigger than himself. His character arc is somewhat predictable, but Teller breathes life and sympathy into what could have been an entirely one-note characterization of the real McDonough.

The importance of teamwork and the balance of personal responsibility with civic duty is the core of what director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, the upcoming Top Gun sequel) brings to this fact-inspired story. The men bond and overcome differences, call each other with non-work-related crises and put their faith in one another. A surprising amount of screen time is dedicated to plot threads that are only tangentially related to fighting fires or the Hotshots.

However, despite Kosinski’s good intentions, these are the portions that are the least engaging, relevant or interesting. If a viewer did not know that this is a true story going in, that these men lost their lives, they would be bored and even repulsed by the casual misogyny and cockiness that goes unremarked upon. Worst of all, a key similarity between Marsh and McDonough is relegated to a third-act twist, and treating it this way cheapens what could have been one of the most powerful dynamics between two characters this year.

Many of the performances in Only the Brave are terrific, and the sequences that show this underrecognized firefighting technique in action are fascinating. Individual scenes carry tremendous emotional impact, including the buildup to where we learn the characters’ fate. But, the wives and girlfriends are little more than vessels to recognize the men’s bravery or worry about how brave they are. The men who lost their lives that day, and those who were impacted by that disaster, deserve a movie more committed to who they were and what made them special than how they partied.


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