Movie Review: Only the Brave
By Matthew Huntley
October 31, 2017
“Only the Brave” reminds us why we gravitate toward drama. It's because we see a piece of ourselves in it and therefore feel drama can teach us more about who we are, why we're here, and perhaps how we can become better. That's an obvious, high-level explanation I know, but with that said, it seems drama need only incorporate truth and sincerity in order to be good. And yet, storytellers often forget that one of the easiest ways to appeal to an audience is to simply be genuine. As a drama, “Only the Brave” isn't high art, but it's certainly genuine, and its basic sensibility allows us to connect with the people it portrays and appreciate what they do.
If you know nothing about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the name given to the elite group of Arizona firefighters, then do yourself a favor and don't look them up until after you see “Only the Brave.” But even if you do know their story, the movie is worth your time because of the way it touches us and involves us in their lives.
I was fortunate enough (if “fortunate” is even the right word) to go into the film unaware of who the Hotshots were and it engaged me because I didn't exactly know where the story was going or even why a full-length feature was being made about these people. I assumed, based on the ads, it was just an excuse to showcase buff, womanizing firemen as they fight wildfires and for the filmmakers to flaunt their budget and special effects, which is actually suggested as early as the opening scene. I also assumed it would end with a big, death-defying climax, with all the plot and character threads having been neatly tied up, and a couple of hanging-on-for-dear-life and/or man-outrunning-fire-type moments.
I assumed wrong. While these scenarios play out to a degree, they're not the point of the movie. Yes, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer's screenplay, based on Sean Flynn's GQ article, “No Exit,” does have its share of standard, inevitable scenes that go along with any film “based on true events,” but “inevitable” and “standard” in this case shouldn't be construed as disingenuous. It takes the first act or so, but the filmmakers eventually convince us they're committed to showing the characters neither as larger-than-life heroes nor as stock Hollywood archetypes, but rather as people we might actually know or as people we are, with relatable problems, worries and fears. In this context, director Joseph Kosinski's down-to-earth approach is wise and effective because it allows the movie to free itself of the burden of either being something it's not, something outrageous and silly, or something we might have seen before.
The story connects us to the Hotshots by focusing on two characters who seemingly have nothing in common but who eventually learn they do. Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the leader of the group, has been for years, and he desperately wants his crew to graduate beyond their “Type-2” firefighting status and become “Type-1,” which requires special certification and would allow them to fight wildfires anywhere in the country, not to mention demand higher pay and overall more respect from their peers. Marsh beseeches fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to help convince the the town mayor to give them a shot at certification, which gives the movie an excuse to show just how arduous a job and how much physical training goes into firefighting, particularly for wildfires.