The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots deserves a better movie.
Firefighters are heroes, of that there’s no doubt, and Hollywood’s attempted to showcase their bravery in film for years. Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave blends the real-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots with the drama of fictional firefighter narratives like Backdraft and Ladder 49 to make what feels like Lone Survivor: Firefighter Edition. That synopsis alone will determine your enjoyment level of a film that often doesn’t know how to balance out its Perfect Storm-esque plot with its hokey sentimentalism and comedic beats.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are considered the “Seal Team 6” of firefighters in Prescott, Arizona. Determined to prove themselves, the team works together despite their own personal flaws, putting out fires and saving lives.
It’s painful to criticize a movie that’s well-intentioned. If you don’t recall the film’s events from 2013, just do a search for “Yarnell Fire + Granite Mountain Hotshots.” The point is, the outcome is widely-known and much of the film’s runtime should be about showing you who these men were and their accomplishments. Too often, though, it’s difficult not to see the group as buffoonish, twang-talking beer-swillers who do little more than opine about women—who, if they aren’t standing by their man are “sluts” or “bitches”—when they aren’t showing how manly they are by putting out fires.
Because the film feels so long, at just over two hours, Kosinski and screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer come off like they’re cramming 80 pounds of story into a five-pound sack. Only three of the Granite Mountain Hotshots are given any discernible personality or backstory; it’s more effective seeing the photos of the real Hotshots, which do a neater job of telling us about their lives. Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh is the crew boss (and crew founder), hellbent on getting the group certified and taken seriously. There are allusions to him suffering from past addictions but they are relegated to a few stray lines of dialogue in the third act, maybe for fear of making him look too much like a real person.
Brolin is solid, though the character’s hokey “I talk to fire” moments undermine him. Miles Teller’s Brendan McDonough is the protagonist. He doesn’t give audiences anything revelatory; the character is a reformed jerk who, like Brolin, easily triumphs over drugs with nary a future mention. The rest of the actors, including Taylor Kitsch, are easily lumped together as “the others.” Again, they all turn in passable performances; there’s just nothing distinctive about them as characters. Weirdly inserted comedic scenes abound, and feel slotted in as a means of fleshing the characters out. In Kitsch’s case, there’s a 20-minute plotline about him and Teller’s characters trying to get a child’s fever down with the moral being “kids are hard work!” And you can’t forget Jeff Bridges, who just seems like he wandered into the frame on accident and the film crew decided to keep him. He does the Rooster Cogburn shtick he’s cultivated for a few films now, gets to sing and is alluded to as being….someone Marsh didn’t want to turn to for help, although that decision is never properly explicated.
As far as the women go, they’re just as blah and uninspiring as their husbands or boyfriends (it’s criminal how Andie McDowall is wasted here). The outlier is Jennifer Connelly as Brolin’s wife, Amanda. Because we’re given only hints of a possible relationship started around addiction and recovery, it becomes difficult to believe these two would get together at all, let alone be married for six years (I mean, the man considers “sugar tits” a term of endearment!). The script tries to give Connelly something more than being the wife who nags her husband for his dangerous job; for example, Connelly’s own emotional fire showcases her as a woman who’s gone through some serious changes. What once worked in their relationship no longer does, as evidenced by a powerful confrontation between husband and wife in the third act. It’s a shame the film doesn’t focus on them more because Brolin and Connelly easily sell this tempestuous marriage, itself waiting for a spark to ignite.
Really, what Only the Brave wants to go for is faux-patriotism. There’s no denying the Granite Mountain Hotshots gave their lives to a cause and should be celebrated, but the film does such a bad job of honoring them. Random extras are quick to give a thumbs up or, in one scene, literally stop helping a patient in a hospital to declare “you guys are heroes,” as if we need the reminder. This just puts the entire emotional burden on the film’s finale which is appropriately harrowing and tragic. The camera closes in on Marsh’s face as flames surround them; it’s beyond terrifying. The results of the fire, and the carnage left in its wake, does a lot towards showing what these men sacrificed.
Only the Brave is a mixed bag. There’s some gorgeous cinematography of open flames and vistas that are nice to see, but the script is just boring. Brolin and company are all good, but the story doesn’t seem interested in presenting these guys as people but “heroes” with all the sentimentality that can be poured on them. The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots deserves a better movie.