The practice of doing big-budget dramatizations of high-octane stories that, as used to be said, have been “ripped from the headlines” continues with Joseph Kosinski’s recreation of the tragedy that befell an ace team of Arizona first responders called in to fight the so-called Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. “Only the Brave” follows the pattern of Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” though it’s less viscerally exciting and, frankly, more downbeat. It’s a decent, well-crafted film, but ultimately more workmanlike than inspired, though one has to commend its commitment to authenticity while regretting its periodic lapses into domestic melodrama. Of course, the destructive California wildfires in the news over the past weeks give it a particularly timely aura.
The first—and by far the longest—portion of the epic-length (134 minutes) movie—is devoted to introducing the men of the Prescott unit that, when first encountered in 2008, is a handcrew (Type 2) squad. As such it assists hotshot (Type 1) units, which have primary on-the-ground decision-making authority in fighting wildfires.
The Prescott squad is headed by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who’s chafing at the bit to win certification at hotshot level. Enlisting the aid of Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), the chief of Prescott’s wildland department, Marsh wins a real-life certification test in which his men perform expertly in fighting a fire, even though the test supervisor butts heads with Marsh over tactics, and they become the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Juxtaposed with all the group’s training exercises and locker-room banter is the story of a new recruit, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who will eventually be given the nickname “Donut.” A troubled young man—given to heavy drinking and drug use, and recently arrested for breaking into a car—he’s just learned that his girlfriend is pregnant. Determined to prove he can change, he applies for the open slot on the squad, and though one of the men, Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), warns Marsh that the kid is unreliable, Marsh takes him on—because, as we’ll learn later in one of the rather stilted exchanges between Eric and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), Marsh sees a lot of his younger self in the guy. MacKenzie eventually comes around, too, even becoming McDonough’s roommate.
This prolonged introduction to the tragic denouement comes across as a ninety-minute exhibition of testosterone-fueled machismo and semi-rude behavior, interspersed with homely moments between members of the squad and the women they leave behind for long stretches as they go off to do battle with another blaze. The emphasis on McDonough’s little daughter might have more cynical viewers rolling their eyes at the plethora of reaction shots, while the scenes between Brolin and Connelly—in which they argue, for instance, about whether to have a kid of their own—come across as labored background, even if you appreciate the attempt to give Amanda some dramatic weight.
Then, of course, comes the fire at Yarnell, and the Granite Mountain Hotshots are called in to collaborate with other groups in dealing with it. On June 30, 2013, two days after the fire had started, nineteen of them were trapped when the winds suddenly changed and the fire cut off their retreat route. The lone survivor was McDonough, whom Marsh had ordered to be the squad’s lookout man on a ridge some distance away, and who was rescued by a member of another Hotshot team.
This latter section of the film is well executed, without undue exaggeration or excessive special effects. It has a genuine feel, neither ratcheting up the excitement for spurious impact nor descending into mawkishness. The tragedy is presented soberly, although inevitably the aftermath is dealt with more melodramatically. One has to admire the relative sense of discretion—much more pronounced than was the case with “Deepwater Horizon,” which definitely aimed for the jugular—though, it musd be said, it mostly hit the target. Even here, though, there are moments that you might wish had been excised—particularly the motif of a bear fleeing from a blaze that Marsh uses as a metaphor for an out-of-control fire.
Most of the guys in the unit remain pretty thin characters, except for Kitsch’s MacKenzie, who provides the brunt of the comic relief, and James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, Marsh’s second-in-command. But Brolin brings Marsh to life as a gruff, no-nonsense John Wayne type, and Teller, softening the jerk persona he’s cultivated before (and repeats in the early stages here), adds a layer of softness to the reformed McDonough that’s actually somewhat touching. Connelly makes Amanda as hard-nosed as her husband, and Bridges contributes his usual oversized temperament to Steinbrink—his pain at the close is palpable. Technically the picture is a solid job, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda using the New Mexican locations well and Joseph Trapanese’s score less overbearing than it might have been.
The good thing about “Only the Brave” is that it’s a respectful tribute to the dedication of first responders who put their own lives on the line to save others. As such, it deserves a modicum of respect itself. Overall, though, its emphasis on John Fordish male camaraderie and formulaic domestic discord in the leadup to its fiery finale makes for a picture that’s more competent than outstanding.