Review: Only The Brave
Updated: Jul 15, 2018
Joseph Kosinski is a director I’ve had my eyes on since his debut film, Tron: Legacy, in 2009. My father had introduced me to the original Tron when I was a child, and I was one of the few of my friends with enough patience at that age to sit through the slow opening to enjoy the rest of the film. Even as a child, I thought the movie was silly, but found great joy in sitting in the basement of our home in Prescott, Arizona, watching Jeff Bridges race light bikes and battle the evil Master Control Program. I had long envisioned what a return to the world of Tron might look like, and Kosinski’s second installment truly blew me away, establishing what I thought was a new precedent for sequels. When he followed this up with Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise, Kosinski had already established himself in my mind as one of the best new sci-fi directors to grace the silver screen. Doing some reading, I found that Kosinski could actually trace his roots to interactives as well, having directed fantastic commercials for Microsoft franchise titles such as Gears of War and Halo. Kosinski’s screen presence, it seemed, could be traced backwards in time to stories that I held close, that formed an integral part of my identity. He was the sci-fi director that understood the type of sci-fi I liked.
So when it was announced that not only was Kosinski’s long awaited third sci-fi spectacle not, in fact, sci-fi—and that it was to be a film on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the 19 Prescott firefighters who lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, I was surprised, especially because of the intimacy I had with the subject matter.
I recall the 2013 fire season as being a rough one. Earlier that year, the Doce Fire threatened my father’s house in Granite Basin, sweeping over the hills from the west towards the home I grew up in. I was living in Chicago at the time, and remember frantically calling friends to stand by and assist in the evacuation of my house. My sister snapped the following picture from our deck, shortly before the winds shifted and blew the blaze up over Granite Mountain, away from our house:
Later that summer, I heard about the tragic events of June 30th, read the statement made the next day by President Obama, and watched videos from June 7th as 19 white hearses drove the firefighters home, thousands lining the street from Phoenix to Prescott, with flags and tears, to pay their respects. A few of these men were people I went to school with at Prescott High School—an old girlfriend had briefly dated one of them—but because of my distance from Prescott, the events recounted to me by family and seen on the news felt like something from a dream—distant and not quite real.
From that day onwards, visiting home was not the same. Prescott was changed by a tragedy that collectively swept over the town—a grief that was shared by all—yet didn’t have the chance to sink its claws into my heart. I remember returning home the following year and finding a wall painted with a memorial to the fallen 19. People around town wore t-shirts and hats to honor the dead. The invisible tragedy was starting to become more apparent in my world.
So it’s safe to say that going into a viewing of Only the Brave was a surreal experience. When Josh Brolin donned his Prescott Fire t-shirt, and members of the Hotshots began to joke about drunken nights at Whiskey Row (the favorite haunt of Prescott residents) the familiarity of these men’s lives—the proximity of theirs to my own—became all too real.
Only the Brave was filmed on location in New Mexico, using generic landscapes in place of the more specific geography of the Prescott area. Their stand-in for Granite Mountain—an iconic landmark instantly familiar to all who call the area home—was noticeably changed (and a lot uglier than the real thing), and only three or four establishing shots seem to have been filmed in Prescott itself. Some of the dramatized events of the film take place in and around Matt’s Saloon, a historic watering hole on the western side of the courthouse square at the center of town, which didn’t seem to stop the filmmakers from finding a stand-in that featured buildings, streets, and medians across the road that are simply not present in the real thing (Matt’s Saloon also doesn’t sit on a street corner).
Nevertheless the general feel of the landscape—the atmosphere of Prescott—was on display in full force. Cowboy hats, big belt buckles, and plaid shirts accurately represent the culture of a place that hasn’t wanted to move on since it lost the title of Arizona’s capitol to Phoenix in 1889. The actors willfully take on the local dialect, imitating the “Preskitt” accent dutifully—especially Jeff Bridges, who is a dead ringer for Duane Steinbrink, and perhaps the most naturally Prescottonian of the on-screen talent. He even plays alongside members of Steinbrink’s real band, Rusty Pistols, subbing in for his real-life counterpart to perform a rendition of Ghost Riders at whatever set they used to replicate the interior of Matt’s Saloon. In fact, the same ex-girlfriend mentioned above told me that she briefly bumped into actor Miles Teller (who plays real life survivor Brendan McDonough) at Matt’s in 2016 as he was on assignment doing research for the film.
Whatever time the filmmakers spent getting to know Prescott, for the most part it pays off with an accurate representation of the culture—if not the layout—of the town. At one point towards the end of the film, one of the Hotshots pauses to mention that he had renamed his band, the Fire Lords, to Hour of the Wolf. For those familiar with local lore, this comes across as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the real local punk band Hour of the Wolf was playing long before 2013 (one of the band member’s wives was an English teacher at the time I attended Prescott High School). It’s strange that at a time when big Hollywood sequels seem to be thriving on their scattered references to past installments, a movie should be released that does the same for local Prescott lore.
This attention to detail also shines through in the film’s rendition of the fire itself, which fills the role of main antagonist in the film. Like any film where the primary conflict is man vs. nature, it is necessary to imbue the environment with as much character as possible. The source material for this comes from an interview with Pat McCarty (a former Granite Mountain Hotshot) in the GQ article that served as the basis for the screenplay:
“You're working your balls off all day with nineteen other guys, they're all as miserable as you are, you're cutting fire lines all day,” he says. And at the end of one of those days, you'll cut a line that ties in with another on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and then you'll sit on the edge, legs dangling. The sky will be tangerine and persimmon to the west, and an atmospheric inversion will trap all the smoke in the canyon below, so you will see only gray until, every few minutes, a smoldering log will break loose and crash into the depths and explode like fireworks. “And it's the most beautiful thing,” McCarty says, “you've ever seen in your life.”
I can’t help but imagine that it was this vivid depiction of the beauty inherent in such a destructive force that inspired Kosinski—a director with a flare for compelling visuals—to take on this project. These scenes certainly have some of the most presence and reality to them, and remind me of similar motifs from 2005’s Jarhead, where the destruction of war is rendered in an almost painterly fashion through the work of cinematography legend Roger Deakins. Claudio Miranda, who worked with Kosinski on Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, struggles to find a home for his work amongst the day-to-day life of the Hotshots crew, but comes to life whenever fire is anywhere in the shot. In particular, the symbolic storytelling used in a handful of overhead shots scattered throughout the film are particularly effective.
When it comes to the screenplay, Only the Brave plays it necessarily safe by focusing its attention on two of the Hotshot members—Eric Marsh and Brendan McDonough, played by Josh Brolin and Miles Teller, respectively. McDonough and Marsh are logical choices for the narrative—no film can give adequate dues to twenty-plus characters, there simply isn’t enough screen time (see, The Hobbit). Marsh was the supervisor in charge of the Hotshots, and McDonough was the sole survivor. Brolin owns the first portion and majority of the film, guiding newcomer McDonough as he tries to earn his keep with the guys. Most of the running time of the film is spent focusing on Marsh and McDonough’s relationships, McDonough as an unwilling father trying to get his life together for his new daughter, and Marsh as a strict, no-bullshit type who sees too much of who he used to be in McDonough. Most of the film is an interplay between the team goofing off, McDonough earning their respect, and Marsh battling himself as he pushes to support his team and the new guy.
We see them go through a handful of fires, establishing their protocols and camaraderie for the audience before the infamous Yarnell burn begins, and the characters are whisked away to their fate. I was curious to see with what level of taste the filmmakers handled the firefighter’s actual deaths—a moment that was foreshadowed twice in the film with shelter-in-place drills. Brolin’s character remarks to his boys the first time that “it’s going to sound like a freight train is coming at you and feel like the end of the world, but as long as you can breath, you can survive.” This helps to heighten the tension as the horror of an actual shelter-in-place reaches them by the third act, and the once beautiful fire is turned into a deadly inferno as the Hotshots find themselves boxed in by dense scrub. Daringly, the cameras are placed inside of the fire shelters to illustrate up close the last moments of some of the men, cutting to McDonough listening on the radio just as the heat reaches them. It is a terrifying and heartbreaking scene that dares to capture the horrors of such an untimely death without glorifying the tragedy that it was.
When I discussed my curiosity regarding this film with some friends who were closer to the event, the responses I got were heartfelt. Most felt no need to relive events that had happened so recently—only four years ago. Others seemed angry. Why would I want to see a movie glorifying a man who got nineteen firefighters killed through poor judgment? Eric Marsh left the “black” safety zone and marched his men down into an unburned box canyon to get to the safety of a nearby farm, before the winds picked up and cut them off.
This fateful decision has given a lot of Prescott locals something to help them redirect their anguish—a target to blame. But Only the Brave does justice to the reality of the situation by treating the fire as a horrifying character unto itself, helping to alleviate the unwarranted blame that has been posthumously piled onto Marsh by emphasizing how deadly and unpredictable wildfires truly are. In the words of survivor McDonough from the same GQ article:
Had any man on that crew felt threatened, McDonough said, had one of them doubted the chosen route, he would have spoken up. “Nineteen guys made that decision and took that choice,” he said. “That’s what people have to understand. You can’t force someone to do that.”
With the reality of an uncontrolled wildfire evident on the screen before you as the Hotshots are run over within a matter of seconds—seconds that no one is better equipped to deal with than the men who were there, on the ground—McDonough’s words are given more weight, and the need to place blame is realized for what it is: a desperate grasp for meaning in a chaotic, unruly world where sometimes, bad things simply happen to good people.
From this point onwards, the film shifts gears and focuses on Marsh’s surviving widow (played by Jennifer Connelly), and McDonough, as they plunge head first into the grief of their situation. Real life McDonough’s feelings on being the only survivor are well documented, and the film presents a painfully honest look at the grief of both characters, especially through an incredibly touching scene in which both actors give commanding performances of the pain their real-life counterparts felt in a streamlined on-screen moment that should leave even the most jaded of viewers feeling broken. Yet, for all the power it holds in the hearts of those visiting the events of this tragedy for the first time, ultimately, for those who have already grieved, there is no need to muddy the memory of real-life events with this Hollywood dramatization.
Only the Brave is receiving a small amount of flack for its lack of accuracy, little attention paid to the majority of the Hotshots, and contrived scenes for the sake of drama (Marsh obligatorily smashing a chair in his office), none of which are new to dramatic retellings from Hollywood. But all of these complaints are revealed for what they are—nitpicks—when the true scope of the film is realized by the time the credits roll. Besides accurately capturing the ethos of small-town Prescott and the bonds shared by these men, the film truly stands alone in its unyielding portrayal of grief.