Not too long ago I review a film called “The Hero” that I admitted brought a tear to my eye. In that review, which you can read here, I admitted that it takes a lot for me to have that kind of reaction to a film of any kind or caliber. I never expected that another powerful film “Only the Brave” would have an even more profound impact on me. I wanted to see this film from the moment I saw the first preview and it did not disappoint. Telling the story of a real life crew of firefighters who lost their lives in 2013, “Only the Brave” is touching, powerful, and unforgiving making for one of the most significant major release dramas of 2017.
“Only the Brave” includes an ensemble cast with Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly, and others all playing real life players in the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters who, save for one, passed away after their escape was cutoff during the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013. The film depicts the certification of the group as Hotshots as well as the relationships between many of the crew’s members leading to their eventual involvement in the Yarnell Hill Fire. It also shows the aftermaths of their deaths with a few details and characters of the true story dramatized and consolidated for the theatrical treatment.
“Only the Brave” comes out at a fitting time after wildfires devastated parts of the American west earlier this year. To say the least the film is a powerful and fitting tribute to every man and woman who puts their lives on the line to fight these fires, but “Only the Brave” is also so much more. What could have easily been an extended look at the Yarnell Hill Fire itself is actually extended with insight into how the Hotshots evolved into a elite group of firefighters before they were charged with helping fight the fatal fire. Exploring the growing brotherhood of these men both on and off the line of duty, “Only the Brave” is a tribute to the unsung heroes of American society but portrays its subjects as simple people who choose to do something few people are truly built to handle and it does it with a great deal of respect and class.
The film’s heavy-hitter cast includes the likes of Miles Teller, Josh Brolin, and Taylor Kitsch who portray members of the Hotshots who truly did exist. Each character has a personality and a look all their own, most of them built to resemble their real-life counterparts physically, and none of them are glorified “good boys”. They swear, they drink, they prank each other…essentially they’re imperfect men giving humanity to the heroes and making them very relatable and easy to invest in. While the film is very selective which characters it chooses to put most of the focus on those men we do get to know are given very deep character development that proves significant to the overall story. Brolin presents an amazingly committed performance as Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Hotshots with a drug using past and a pressure cooker attitude problem. Teller portrays the only survivor of Yarnell Hill, Brendan McDonough, as another former drug user who joins the Hotshots to give a better life to his newborn daughter and experiences a profound transformation as a member of the team. Kitsch plays Chris MacKenzie who is a wisecracking egomaniac prankster who we see mature and bond with McDonough as the film progresses. Every character is brought to full life in committed and commanding performances built on amazing chemistry and understanding of the real-life men these actors have chosen to portray.
While it does take a while to get to the more heart wrenching part of the film, the inevitable loss during the Yarnell Hill Fire, the journey is worth every minute as even the driest of moments feels warranted and important to understanding the unity of these men and getting into the head of every person who committed themselves to a fight they unfortunately lost. “Only the Brave” becomes not just a testament to these specific heroes but to the brotherhood and dedication of everyone who puts on the fire suit to get the job done keeping the story well established within the world of the Hotshots, but also telling a much larger and more significant tale of bravery and dedication to service that, while inspired by true events, is engrossing and very well written for the screen.
When the Yarnell Hill Fire does come into play and we see the real-life tragedy occur it’s a truly powerful moment to behold. The moment is not over dramatized and it’s extremely well paced Its presented as a very professional moment in the lives of these men who reacted with their training even in the face of the an unstoppable force closing in on them. They show no fear or hesitation, but they do show uncertainty and human concern for the possibility of death while embracing the bravery we would expect from firefighters even in the worst of situations. The aftermath is equally as powerful and while this is where several liberties were truly taken to add to the drama of the film, the way the families realize what has happened and who they lost is so powerful and emotionally charged even the manliest of men might just shed a tear of respect to the men, the families, and the lone survivor for the pain they went through in the wake of unimaginable loss.
“Only the Brave” is powerful, well acted, controlled, and done with a great deal of careful respect and consideration for the subjects of its true life inspiration. This film needed to be so much more than it was probably initially intended to be. Whether intentional or not this story had a lot to present well beyond the scope of it’s own story, and it succeeded in not only respecting it’s real life inspiration but also the larger narrative of bravery that it had to embrace as a result of its subject matter. Despite the liberties it takes with some moments and characters and the unfortunately necessary focus on only a few of the many involved with the Hotshots this film is a true tribute to heroism, bravery, and sacrifice by a group of men who were just as real and human as you and me but had that extra something that made them willing and able to put it all on the line. While we have so many stories about the few and the proud who serve our country in the armed forces, it’s hard to find great films that are a tribute to the unsung heroes in our own back yards. An excellent drama and a well directed, acted, and shot cinematic achievement “Only the Brave” is, in my opinion, a true must see action drama that just might bring a tear to your eye as well.