Main cast: Josh Brolin (Eric “Supe” Marsh), Miles Teller (Brendan “Donut” McDonough), Jennifer Connelly (Amanda Marsh), Andie MacDowell (Marvel Steinbrink), Rachel Singer (Mrs McDonough), Natalie Hall (Natalie Johnson), James Badge Dale (Jesse Steed), Taylor Kitsch (Chris MacKenzie), Geoff Stults (Travis Turbyfill), Alex Russell (Andrew Ashcraft), Thad Luckinbill (Scott Norris), Ben Hardy (Wade Parker), Scott Haze (Clayton Whitted), Jake Picking (Anthony “Baby-G” Rose), and Jeff Bridges (Duane Steinbrink)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
After those semi-documentaries Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon, I wasn’t sure at first whether I wanted to watch Only the Brave, but what the heck. It’s not like I have anything better to do. Like those movies, this one has a credits sequence that segue from the actors into the real life folks whose characters are played by these actors, along with the usual “deep” malarkey monologues by our main characters, lots of rather forced declarations of love and sappy moments before the big dramatic moments that will tear peace and happiness apart, that kind of thing. And since this movie is based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the Prescott municipal fire department which became the first to be certified as a hotshot crew (the elite task force dedicated to combating forest fires), it is not a spoiler to reveal that all but one of them died during the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy in 2013. Who survives? Well, the guy that gets the most screentime and character development outside of Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, naturally.
Eric Marsh, the captain of the Prescott Fire Department, is continuously frustrated by the fact that he knows that his crew can do a better job combating forest fires than the established hotshots out there, but they aren’t certified so they have to play second fiddle to folks with poorer judgment who still treat them like crap. Furthermore, his hot-headed nature and his inability to play nice as part of a team often alienate potential allies who could help him get that certification for his crew. Eventually, he does get the certification, thanks to the local lawman and friend Duane Steinbrink who has the mayor’s ears. Meanwhile, former stoner Brendan McDonough tries to get his act together after discovering that he is a father, and applies for a job at the Fire Department. He doesn’t do too well at first, but Eric sees a younger version of himself in Brendan, and eventually that kid rises to the occasion and even forms an unlikely friendship with his nemesis Chris MacKenzie. Yes, he’s the only crew member that survives in the end. Oh, don’t tell me I’m spoiling the movie – this is a slice of history of Arizona, and everything is out there online.
Anyway, this is a very watchable docu-drama mostly because the movie, while treating the key characters with kid gloves most of the time, is not afraid to show them as flawed people. Eric, especially, may be a good leader of his crew, but his relationship with his wife Amanda can be very rocky due to his stubbornness and his tendency to say the most cruel, hurtful things when he loses his temper. Even Brendan is not spared from his viciousness at times. And yet, it is easy to see why Eric earns the respect and affection of the people around him: in the end of the day, he tries his best, and when he screws up, he knows it and wants to do better as a result. Brendan is also a likable character – a screw-up who eventually pulls through and does good to the ones he care for.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, exists solely to prop up the characters of Eric, his wife, and Brendan. When the credits roll and offer tribute to the real life men who gave their lives away during the tragedy, I have no idea whom these people are, because their characters are this much into the background. Oh, there’s that square-jawed guy who is Eric’s second in command… Jesse, that’s it. He says some things, and that’s about it. The rest are just sort of there, to do things, take up space, and then die.
The middle parts of Only the Brave drag, mostly because the cynic in me recognizes that all those moments of people just doing mundane things are typical build-ups to the tragedy that will inevitably come. Even then, the powerful performances of Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly can hurt the heart pretty badly, as these two demonstrate that even the most seemingly-loving couple in a movie can have real, painful issues that they have to work through. The best parts of the movie are the first and last third – the middle is just filler that, oddly enough, still fails to give anyone whose aren’t Eric, Brendan, and the women in their lives any deeper depth or substance.
The tragedy is portrayed without gratuitous melodrama or sweeping music, and hence is all the more powerful and painful to watch as a result. The aftermath is simply, devastatingly heartbreaking. Even so, nothing about this movie feels exploitative, mawkish, or sentimental. Interestingly as well, the movie doesn’t assign blame to any party for the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ death, even if the Arizona Forestry Division was officially pilloried for its various oversights, crisis mismanagement, and other problems that led to these deaths. Perhaps that is for the best, as Only the Brave only wants everyone to celebrate the lives and the valor of these folks… okay, Eric, Brendan, and couple of cute guys, without turning them too much into symbols or props.