It seems as though biopics are more plentiful than ever these days. There are more of these “based on a true story” films than you can bear; with most of them telling a linear life story in 90 minutes, they’re often less than enthralling. I thought I was facing the same when I went in to see ‘Only The Brave’ - but I was happily mistaken.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, 'Hail, Caesar!', 'Everest', 'Milk') runs a small yet dedicated firefighting crew in Prescott, Arizona. However, with “deuce” status, they’re relegated away from the fire front, and subjected to ridicule from the elite hotshot units. When they finally get the break they’ve been waiting for, and are given the chance to gain hotshot status, the team’s evaluation sees them all face extreme pressure - but they barely win the desired title to become the first ever municipal hotshot crew, and earn the respect of the nation over the six years they work together. Yet the pressures of being on top are a challenge, as they regularly risk their lives with long stretches away from their family - and with the unpredictable nature of wildfires, danger is always just around the corner.
‘Only The Brave’ is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, which lost 19 of its team members when they perished in an overwhelming inferno in 2013. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in the United States since 9/11, and an unrivalled disaster for the small town they called home. ‘Only The Brave’ handles their story with great respect, with a strong emphasis on what made the Granite Mountain Hotshots unique - an unwavering affinity and inseverable bond.
This film surpasses its genre peers by encapsulating something more than a linear narrative - its focus is firmly on the lives of the crew and their families, from which comes the emotion far too many of these biopics lack. There’s no glorification of the key players - in fact, there are moments when they’re presented as sexist, rude, and elitist. Yet it’s impossible to ignore all of their positive traits - fearless, unwavering, conflicted, generous, loyal. These are just everyday men doing something exceptional, and their portrayal as flawed humans and not American heroes makes this telling all the more commendable.
It also doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming an action movie. The scenes battling fires are few and far between, kept scarce to increase their dramatic impact. In addition to the interactions and developing relationships with their families and their team, what we see is the rigorous training they have to endure and the knowledge they need to instantly recall in the most stressful of situations. This is more fascinating and more realistic than non-stop fire battles, and does much to convince that the inevitable conclusion was an unavoidable tragedy.
The respect and sincerity showed for the story makes much more sense when you realise that Ken Nolan, the man behind the script adaptation of ‘Black Hawk Down’, penned this screenplay. For avoiding the pitfalls of an unenthralling chronological retelling of events, he deserves great praise, but for capturing the relationships between these men in a convincing, heartfelt, endearing way is something far more exceptional. Being able to feel the pressure of the men far away from their loved ones or the passion and dedication towards their work brings great justice to the film’s real-life counterparts.
It’s all brought to the screen modestly by Joe Kosinski ('TRON: Legacy', 'Oblivion'), who shows great restrain in his direction. Occasionally we see artistic flourishes, with beautiful scenic shots of vistas or stunning shots on horseback in open old plains - but the film never glorifies the fires, presenting them as raw and ferocious and terrifying. The cast trained to be real hotshots, and faced actual fires on set, having to build their own fire lines to combat them. This insistence of authenticity, as well as choosing to avoid a sense of overdramatic Hollywood embellishment, ensures the audience never forgets those men or those conditions are real.
‘Only The Brave’ handles the story with great respect, with a strong emphasis on what made the Granite Mountain Hotshots unique - an unwavering affinity and inseverable bond.
This is easily one of the best roles Josh Brolin has played lately, if not as a leading role in his entire career. He has his own personal connection to the story: “When I was in my 20s, I fought fires for three years with a volunteer fire department in Arizona,” Brolin revealed. “It was something that resonated with me.” It shows, with a deep and commanding performance at the team’s superintendent. He’s the common element that keeps these men together, played with tough fairness and great respect. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Eric Marsh, with Brolin losing 18 kilograms for the role. Miles Teller ('Whiplash', 'War Dogs', 'Fantastic Four') is also brilliant as Brendan “Donut” McDonough, one of the newest recruits, a former drug addict and felon, just looking for a chance to change his life for his new-born daughter. It’s also great to see Jennifer Connelly ('Noah', 'A Beautiful Mind', 'Requiem For A Dream') back on the big screen as Eric’s wife Amanda, in a pivotal role she embraces with great gusto and strength. This is an immense cast, and no one puts a foot out of line - for an ensemble of award winning actors, former Navy SEALs and real-life former Granite Mountain Hotshots, it’s a pleasure to watch the on-screen camaraderie.
Don’t go into ‘Only The Brave’ expecting another disaster film or a dry biopic - this is a cleverly nuanced, fascinating tale of community, perseverance and sacrifice. Despite its inevitable conclusion, you will follow this story every step of the way, and be crushed when the final scenes play out. It’s a powerfully true tale of ordinary men dedicated to their cause to the very end, with more humanity than any fictitious superhero film could ever hope to muster.