‘Only the Brave’ delivers a real life trial by fire

 By Ryen Thomas

October 27, 2017

Images of raging fires engulfing the forest and homes of California capture our attention more and more these days. Yet we rarely learn much about the heroes who struggle to put the flames out. Only the Brave follows the exploits of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a real life elite troop of firefighters near Prescott, Arizona. Their mission was to fight wildfires by reducing growth of fire prone vegetation. Their legacy is the same kind of servicemen sacrifice we saw in 9/11, only far less celebrated.

James Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the grizzled, spectacle wearing leader of the hotshots. Against his wife’s (Jennifer Connelly) best interest, Marsh puts a strain on his marriage and devotes most his time and energy toward getting his ragtag crew of working men to hero status. Calling the troop’s journey a trial by fire would be an understatement, thanks to the many scenes depicting training and firefighting.

Josh Brolin as Eric “Supe” Marsh and Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Each action sequence personifies the wildfires as the true raging antagonist of the movie: a vicious enemy, with a harsh thirst to cover the earth and destroy lives. Battling this enemy makes Brave comes off more like a war movie than a typical disaster movie.

In between the battles are scenes back at home displaying the character’s salt of the earth life. Our boys grow together professionally and personally. In their pickup trucks, they sing along to AC/ DC and ZZ top. They have cookouts with their beautiful families, cut up at the bar and there’s even horses on the ranch. Director Joseph Kosinski treats us to a piece of American pie that we rarely indulge in these days, save for faith-based films and the Capraesque classics of yesteryear.

What makes this film stand out amongst many of the films we’ve gotten post-9/11 is a pure story delivered without postmodern cynicism but with loads of sincerity and heart. It’s hallmark being the redemptive journey of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller) who goes from pothead to the rookie on the team, working hard to become a good citizen and father to his newborn girl. Tiller, who starred in the highly praised and award-winning film, Whiplash, is a rising young talent with acting chops that allow him match the intensity of Brolin and Jeff Bridges, who plays a veteran Fire Chief.  

(Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough and Josh Brolin as “Supe” Eric Marsh courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Taylor Kitsch holds his own, as the immature lover boy, who hazes Donut during the training program, making the journey to overcome Donut’s bad attitude more arduous. Thankfully, the film never dwells long on the struggles between the men and focus more on the rising brotherhood, restored relationships and sacrifice.

While the dialogue, character development and plot feel trite in some areas, Brave’s incredible cast pulls us through the narrative. It’s ensemble works hard to make sure we know that this film is about real-life characters. The characters don’t serve merely as an excuse to get us close to fires (nicely created by fearsome visual effects); they are vulnerable and give us something to emotionally connect to. When they win, we win and when they lose, we feel their tragic pain. It’s the kind pain that’s never in vain, but stained with the blood of sacrifice that makes a man, a true American hero.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5  

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