Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 133 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This film ends tragically, which you could theoretically assume from how the film is being marketed and the fact that it is based on a true story, but still, it’s emotional. Some scary scenes involving firefighting, during which characters’ lives are often threatened; a car-crash scene involves a car flipping over; the depiction of burned animal and human bodies and a subplot involving an abused, burned horse; some cursing; some sexually themed humor, jokes about masturbation, and disparaging insults about women; some vomit and bathroom humor; characters drink alcohol to excess, smoke marijuana (which isn’t portrayed positively), and some discuss their pasts as addicts; and there are a few implied sex scenes.
Prepare to tear up during ‘Only the Brave,’ which boasts a talented ensemble cast in a true story about a group of elite firefighters. The movie is visually and narratively strong, but falters when it steps outside of a totally masculine zone.
By Roxana Hadadi
There is something strangely, upsettingly coincidental about “Only the Brave,” a movie about an elite group of firefighters putting their lives on the line to save others, coming out this week, as media coverage of the massive wildfires in California continues daily. It’s the kind of unintended marketing that the men in “Only the Brave,” who gave so much of themselves to fighting fires and saving other people and who are developed so intimately and fully in this film, would find inappropriate and unconscionable.
Profiting off the pain of others would never be something the men of “Only the Brave” would do. Instead, the municipal firefighters based out of Prescott, Arizona, who would eventually become certified as the Granite Mountain Hotshots—firefighters overseen by the federal government, traveling the country to fight fires wherever the help is needed—were brave but principled, a little reckless but methodical. They listened to the orders of their supervisors, and they were quick thinkers willing to work through various solutions to problems, and they put themselves on the front lines constantly. They had a fascination with fire and a fear of it, and “Only the Brave” manages to convey all those complex, sometimes contradictory emotions and motivations at once.
The film, based on a GQ article by journalist Sean Flynn called “No Exit,” takes time to build the men who would become hotshots. Gruff and no-nonsense, superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, of “Hail, Caesar!”) has spent four years as a trainee hotshot and is frustrated with the lack of progress for his crew. Serving as his second-in-command is Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale, of “The Walk”), a wry husband and father of two who is one of the only people who can keep prankster and ladies’ man Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch, of “The Grand Seduction”) in line. And trying to enter in this group of elite firefighters is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, of “The Divergent Series: Allegiant”), a one-time burnout who is trying to move past his marijuana addiction so he can provide for his newborn daughter.
The training is tough, and the work itself even harder—lengthy hikes with chainsaws and gear, working in extremely hot, dangerous conditions—but as time passes and the crew becomes more experienced, their bonds become stronger, too. So much of the impact of “Only the Brave” is because of the patience it has for developing these male characters and their relationships with each other, their professional and interpersonal dynamics, and it is impressive how the 20 men of the crew are differentiated. The film cares about every man it features, and it pays great attention to why they chose to do this work, which is reflected in the clear visuals.
The imagery of the film does a lot to contextualize how the hotshots’ responsibilities were so hazardous. Set out west, the movie takes advantage of sumptuous forests, wide-open fields, and even the Grand Canyon as fire-fighting stages, and some shots—like burning trees falling over the edge of the Grand Canyon and exploding, or a deer racing ahead of a fast-moving line of flames—are unforgettable. And the performances from Brolin and Teller, who nicely push against each other in a father-son dynamic, and the ever-charming Kitsch, are particularly strong.
But there are elements of “Only the Brave” that are either totally underdeveloped or seem ignored, and they distract from the other strengths. Female characters are barely present, and too often are relied on to symbolize concern or grief without any kind of real attention paid to who these women were or why they loved these men. Jennifer Connelly (of "Noah") has the most screen time as Marsh’s increasingly concerned wife, but what the film depicts of her—her dedication to abused horses, her disdain for drug use—suggests more details that should have been included in her characterization. And it’s strange that the film’s script, which spends so much time complaining about federal bureaucracy and the local politics of gaining public support for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, doesn’t follow up on any of those elements at the film’s conclusion. How did their status as the first municipal hotshot crew affect the federal structure of that program? How has the Prescott community changed in the years since? Without any concluding context, the film feels slightly anticlimactic.
“Only the Brave” rightfully demonstrates what made the Granite Mountain Hotshots heroic, and it excels at that—at sharing with us these men who pushed back against the pure destruction of fire, who dared to combat it in a way more perilous than most of us realize. It would have been a better film if it applied that same holistic storytelling to its other elements, too.
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