Only the Brave

(2017) *** Pg-13
133 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Joseph Kosinski. Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges.

/content/films/5080/1.jpgIf you’re looking for escapism at the movies this week, you’ve come to the wrong place. Whether the timing is fortuitous or, well, disastrous, firefighting movie Only the Brave arrives in Northern California theaters as the area continues to reel from its own devastating fires. If you go, you'll see imagery of chaotic fleeing from homes as a wildfire rapidly closes in. But you'll also find an emotional tribute to those who stand between the fires and the small towns they threaten to consume.

“Based on true events” and the GQ article “No Exit: The Granite Fire Yarnell Investigation” by Sean Flynn, Only the Brave concerns an elite team that’s been called “the Navy Seals of firefighters.” Armed only with ax and shovel, the Granite Mountain Hotshots dig trenches and use controlled burns, literally fighting fire with fire. Building to a climax set during the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, the film establishes the training required for, and practical strategies of, fighting and surviving wildfires, as well as the camaraderie that inevitably results.

At the time, the team was all-male, and there’s a distinctive bros-without-hose energy as the men squabble and prank each other. Of course, the frat-house shenanigans belie a depth of feeling. These guys have each other’s backs, and not only during fires. The film’s point of view teeters back and forth between Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, whose still waters run deep)—a taciturn “type 2” firefighter and superintendent of Prescott, Arizona’s Group 7—and new recruit Brendan “Donut” McDonough (a bleached blond Miles Teller), a ne’er-do-well who’s determined at last to do well, especially by his newborn daughter. Marsh wants nothing more than for his team to qualify for “Hotshot” status, and it’s no spoiler to say that four years of effort culminate in the crew renaming themselves the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

In most respects, Only the Brave resembles a war movie: the boot-camp theatrics, the procedures and gear and briefings, the male bonding, the charging into mortal danger. But this is also a domestic story, with Marsh and wife Amanda (professional sufferer Jennifer Connelly in a thankfully substantial role) troubleshooting a trying life at the mercy of nature and questioning their long-held agreement not to have kids. Screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer also explore the profound similarities between young Brendan and his middle-aged mentor, who gives his charge a much-needed second-chance in life, and the manners in which Brendan develops a slow-burn friendship with a skeptical peer (Taylor Kitsch’s Mackenzie).

Like Deepwater Horizon, Only the Brave does a creditable job of offering docudramatic education and dramatic catharsis. It’s an old-fashioned action-adventure story with star performances, given a sacred tinge by its real-life roots. As always, there’s something queasy about turning these mortal combats into multiplex movies, but director Joseph Kosinski (reunited here with his Tron Legacy star Jeff Bridges, who plays Brolin’s mentor) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda make a convincing case for the spirituality and dark beauty to be found in revisiting these true events and getting the details right.

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