Quick Take: Hollywood is almost as fond of reenactments of tragic events as it is of geopolitical disaster movies and the two are frequently treated with the same lackadaisical regard when it comes to the “true” portion of the tagline: “based on true events.”
But Director Joseph Kosinski created a heart-rending dramatization in Only The Brave without needlessly inserting composite characters or conflating the tragedy that stole lives for effect.
Only The Brave tells the tale of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in a way that honors both their memory and their sacrifice. It’s a look into the mindset of this wildland firefighting crew and the community that rallied around them. It’s a surprisingly uplifting tribute to 19 lives lost in service to the people living in communities threatened by fires.
Only The Brave is a deliberate slow build. It’s more character driven than anything else. Given that it’s a tribute to a team of men who don’t make it out, I think that was a good call. At the start, you meet this crew, they’re struggling to be respected among the ranks of wildland firefighters. Without belaboring the point, You get the sense that egos and attitude play a large part in the outcome of a wildfire as well as the crews working the lines. Using this moment, to introduce the team’s supervisor, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) lays the groundwork for the rest of the narrative focus on the members of the team rather than being about the flash and flames.
I didn’t know much about the differences between fighting structure fires versus wildland fires until I moved back to California and discovered the true meaning of fire season. I have the utmost respect for firefighters in general, but there’s no world configuration that exists that will convince me that there isn’t something seriously special about people who are willing to fight fire with fire. The visuals in Only The Brave are stunning and make the point that these fires are a living, breathing mesmerizing force in a way that only serves to deepen the impact of the story being told. The effects looked realistic instead of a CGI spectacle and kept this reenactment grounded in realism even as it uses imagery to underscored issues at the heart of Marsh’s dedication to the job.
Kosinski decision to lead in with their journey to becoming certified Hotshots helped build a tangible connection to each and every member of the crew. This story arc took the time needed to dip beneath the surface of these lives. You don’t know every detail of each man’s experience but it takes the time to make them real people. You felt like you knew these men and cared about them long before they were fatally in harm’s way on screen.
For all its seriousness Only The Brave is, at turns, a hilarious look at the dynamic between these men, the women who love them and how they grew into an elite team and family. This is one of the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in recent movies of this type. No one person sticks out as feeling inauthentic or hyped. You get the sense of their joy, dedication and completely ridiculous ways of keeping each other grounded.
It’s an imperfect film and there are times that the narrative becomes uneven but you get the sense that it went to the limits of what the survivors were willing to share and the screenwriters step lightly when “filling in” the gaps. Not once did you forget you were watching a movie, but this film never forgot it was telling a story about real people.
This movie held my attention and got me in the “feels” on more than one occasion. I walked out feeling like it was a fitting tribute and a good way to build a film around such tragic events without resorting to cliches.
Once you see Only The Brave, not only will you know how The Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives, you’ll have no choice but to respect how they lived them.
Overall Rating 3 out of 5
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