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Only the Brave

Theatrical Review

Columbia Pictures; 133 minutes

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Written by Jordan Ruimy on October 19, 2017 

The word hero seems to be mentioned a great deal in this age of the 24-hour news cycle, but the members of the Granite Mountain “Hotshots” genuinely deserve to be known as such. They were the best at what they did. This bunch of regular, but courageous firefighters were more than just co-workers: they were a brotherhood that continuously risked their lives trying to contain fast-spreading wildfires. As part of the Prescott Fire Fepartment, which consisted of 92 career personnel, split among five fire stations, this municipal team of “hotshots” — which, in firefighting terms, means the cream of the crop — were the elites of their profession.

Containment is what these brave men and women have as a goal whenever a fire spreads. As a character in the film would say, they are “fighting fire with fire.” This happens with the creation of a fireline, which is accomplished by doing a controlled burn all around the forest fire. It’s all about cutting off the fuel source of the larger fire by burning off the already-dry plants. In the summer of 2013, the “hotshots” faced their most difficult challenge: the Yarnell Hill fire. Twenty members of the group were sent to contain it, and only one came back.

Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave depicts this tragedy with a bravado that feels all too etched in realism. The film presents our protagonists as gung ho, anything-goes, beer-chugging types, but the machoism is never annoying and, actually, quite touching in its small-town American spirit.


The two main protagonists could not be any more different; “Supe” Eric Marsh (the always-formidable Josh Brolin) is a happily married, humble and respected man of his profession, who trains his “boys” in fighting the astonishingly rapid pace at which which wildfires can spread. Miles Teller is Brendan, recently arrested and bailed, a lost puppy with a drug habit and total disrespect towards women — in fact, he impregnates his latest “fling” and wants to know nothing about it. As the cliché goes, the tragic circumstances to come will no doubt test his overall demeanor. That is partly why he joins Prescott; he thinks that by doing so he can also clean up his act. Odd as it may seem, Brendan seems to remind Supe of his own young self, which is why he takes him under his wings and shows him how it is all done. Then there’s Supe’s mentor, fire Chief Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, welcomely not in his southern-drawl Rooster Cogburn mode), a supporting character that brings a little more heart to a set of characters filled with it.

The set-up is much more developed than this type of drama usually calls for, patiently taking its time in introducing these characters before the major setpieces. Scripted by Black Hawk Down‘s Ken Nolan and American Hustle‘s Eric Singer, they do a commendable job of giving us a vast portrait of these firefighters; their bonding time, the messing around they do, their training, the overall chemistry and vibe they have built up. To know and feel that bond is important in that it eventually has the viewer more invested in the film’s inevitable piece-de-resistance: Yarnell Hill.


The way Kosinski stages the wildfire is impressive: using digital and, more importantly, practical effects, he manages to convey a you-are-there feeling to the fiery inferno unfolding on-screen. The director seems to be as amazed as we are at the imagery that such a forceful inferno can convey. With his previous sci-fi films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, Kosinski has shown an eye for sleek visuals and with this real-life scenario, his approach is just as visually astonishing. From the falling of a tree off a cliff, to the smoke-filled valleys, to the near apocalyptic darkness that can come with too much smoke, Kosinski makes Only the Brave more cinematic than many of the previous true-life disaster flicks that have come before it.

This testosterone-infused film recalls some of Peter Berg’s more recent heroic true story tales — especially Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon — but Kosinski’s penchant for not relying on as much jingoism does his film a great service. Only the Brave is not a simplistic portrait. The understandable mistakes — misfortunes, if you will — and just sheer bad luck the firefighters had on that day don’t go unnoticed. Joe Biden, speaking at the memorial of the fallen 19, eloquently stated “All men are created equal, but then a few become firefighters.” By painstakingly focusing on the smaller, humane aspects of the story, Kosinski does these fallen warriors justice.

Only the Brave opens on Friday, October 20.


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