Only the Brave

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   Only the Brave
 


In Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) trained a local group of firefighters so strenuously, they achieved the ranking of 'Hotshot,' the Navy Seals of firefighting.  He also took a chance on a young recruit, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a decision others on his team questioned.  In June of 2013 with the Yarnell Hill Fire raging in their own state, the twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots went in to fight a blaze destined for "Only the Brave."

Laura:
This true life accounting of the worst loss of firefighters since 9/11 based on the GQ article "No Exit" (written by Ken Nolan ("Black Hawk Down") and Eric Warren Singer) casts its group of stalwart men as a battle troop where each looks out for the other fighting a common enemy.  These were family men and ladies' men, like Chris 'Mac' MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who spent their down time working out, drinking beer and line dancing.  Yet many, notably Marsh himself, struggled with work/life balance, his horse rescuing wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) distraught over his constant time away.

Marsh was tired of being second fiddle to the Hotshots, appealing to Prescott Wildland Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, who also performs leading the Rusty Pistols Cowboy Band) to help his group achieve Hotshot certification.  His instincts and experience frequently trumped that of the Hotshot squads, one group ignoring his advice to devastating home loss.  Steinbrink advised that the Mayor would never be convinced to fund a municipal Hotshot group, but Marsh came up with a convincing argument - certify his group and they'd make money for the city by taking jobs across the country, a heavy load of overtime.

Meanwhile we meet Brendan, a junkie with so few prospects on such a downward spiral his own mother (Rachel Singer, "Fight Club") throws him out.  Learning that a former girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Hall), is expecting his child, he reaches out, but he's shut down.  It is a wakeup call and Brendan becomes determined to straighten out for his child.  Arriving at Marsh's tryouts, both Marsh's right hand man Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale, "13 Hours") and Mac dismiss him as a burnout, Steed advising him no slots are left until Marsh steps in. It seems inexplicable when he takes the washed out young man on, but eventually we'll learn his reasons.  Brendan has a rough start, is continually pranked and dubbed 'Donut,' but persists, proves himself and wins over Mac so well, they become roommates.  He even wins over Natalie, leaving bags of diapers at her door for their baby daughter Michaela.

Marsh trains with tough love ('I know you guys are looking for sympathy, but the only place you’re gonna find it is in the dictionary, somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis.’), but he almost blows their chance by overruling his Hotshot evaluator's game plan.  He's right, of course, feedback given that while he's a cocky loudmouth, his group is the best the evaluator's ever seen.  The newly named Granite Mountain Hotshots prove a great success wherever they go.

Brolin is smartly cast as the heart of the film, although he's almost upstaged by Connelly, whose fiery, conflicted horsewoman epitomizes the grass widow.  Despite their characters' issues, the two create a strong, deeply felt bond.  Teller, pale, drawn and blond here, is mostly one note, adopting a hangdog persona which never entirely lifts.  Kitsch adds a lot of humor as Mac matures from hot chicks to a real relationship.

Director Joseph Kosinski ("Oblivion") takes pains to analyze the job of the Hotshots, who literally fight fire with fire, digging trenches and lighting perimeter blazes to contain raging wildfires.  But although we get deep into the lives of Marsh and McDonough, outside of Steed and Mac, the rest of the group are pretty anonymous.  We see the men encountering all manner of danger, but when Kosinski gets to his pivotal moment, his logistics of just what went wrong are murky.  The fires, accomplished with both practical effects and CGI, are generally convincing, although the CGI 'bear on fire' that haunts Marsh's dreams is not.  The film's soundtrack consists of the type of hard rock and country music these men would have listened to, Dierks Bentley contributing original song 'Hold the Light."

"Only the Brave" honors the brave men whose dedication and training were eventually overcome by Mother Nature.  It gives us a good sense of their lives and camaraderie, but the depiction of the tragedy of their deaths (only one survived), while heartbreaking, gives us the who, when and how, but not the why.
 
Grade:  B-

Robin:
Robin did not see this film.
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